Keep Kids Safe
Vermont mom Brandy Brow knows about remodeling with children underfoot. After all, when you have six kids under the age of 12 and have been building and remodeling for 10 years, you become fairly skilled at handling all the complications. Brow's understanding of the importance of safety while remodeling was hard-won, however. Her 1-year-old daughter suffered lead poisoning when the family removed some French doors in their old house.
"Her levels were one point below intervention, where the state removes the family from the home to do lead abatement," Brow says. "The outside of the house was lead paint, all the doors, baseboards and windows were lead, and there was lead paint inside the cupboards."
The Brow family received priority consideration for Vermont's lead abatement program because of the severity of the child's poisoning and the amount of lead in their home. "The state's lead reduction program gives a combination grant and non-interest-bearing and half forgivable loan payable upon selling the house," Brow says.
All the time and work that the family put into taking the house from a poisoned trap to a remodeled living space was worth it. The high lead levels, which had caused irritability, appetite problems and stunted growth in their daughter, were gone. "After the lead reduction work, our kids' lead levels returned to normal, and they suffered no long-term effects," Brow says.
It Could Happen to You
While not every family who remodels must worry about lead paint, which hasn't been used in U.S. homes since 1978, there are hazards that can crop up for any family embarking upon a home remodeling project. Christopher Ashe, one of the stars of HGTV's 24-Hour Design, isn't just a carpenter. With more than a decade of experience in the building trade under his belt, Ashe knows about the dangers that families can face when remodeling. "I categorize construction hazards as one of two ways: immediate or long-term," he says. "Long-term hazards are usually materials that were once commonplace but have since been found to be dangerous. The big ones are lead paint and asbestos."
Ashe says if you're working in a home that was built before lead was removed from paint, the best way to test for lead is to have a qualified lead inspector come out to test the house. He adds that while wearing approved safety gear when working around lead paint remnants is essential, homeowners should also seal off any HVAC ducts and make sure they vacuum with a HEPA filter vacuum twice a day, minimum.
Asbestos is another hazard that was commonly used in older homes. "Many building materials made before the 1970s contain asbestos as a fire retardant," he says. It may also be in places you wouldn't necessarily suspect. Asbestos can be in pipe and furnace insulation; shingles, siding and roofing; millboard; resilient flooring; the backing on vinyl sheet flooring and floor tile adhesives; patching and joint compound; and even in soundproofing and decorative materials.
Ashe says that asbestos removal should never be a DIY project, though: "Improperly tested or removed asbestos can be a far greater danger than it is undisturbed," he says. If you suspect your home might have asbestos materials, check the EPA's Web site to make sure your contractor is in compliance with the government recommendations.
New Doesn't Always Mean Safer
Just because building materials aren't old doesn't mean they're safe. Harrison Barnes and his wife recently added a deck to their California beach home. "My wife is pregnant, and we spent around $28,000 building a giant porch overlooking the sea directly on the water," Barnes says. "We had looked forward to this remodel for years, and when the porch was complete, we were very happy. Unfortunately, another contractor pointed out to us that the person who built the porch had used pressure-treated lumber."
The lumber Barnes refers to has been treated with the preservative chromated copper arsenic, or CCA. While it extends the life of the wood by keeping other living organisms from living in it, it contains chemicals that can leech and be harmful to children and pregnant women. "We actually took the step of removing the porch and rebuilding it to protect our coming first child," Barnes says. "We learned later that the baby could have experienced all sorts of issues from the pressure-treated lumber's toxins had we not taken the action we did of removing the porch."
Industrial hygienist Chuck Whitman says that Barnes is right. "Arsenic that has leeched from treated lumber can be found at high concentrations in soil under play sets, decks and fences constructed of the treated lumber," he says, noting that concerned parents can check out the CDC Web site and search for more information on CCA-treated wood.
Ashe notes that researching materials is important to the safety of any home improvement project, and pressure-treated wood is a good example. "Most engineered wood products contain poisons, so research your materials," he says. "You can always find an eco-friendly alternative. It may cost more, but sometimes it's a small price to pay."
Curiosity Can Hurt Children
Of course, chemical hazards aren't the only problems families need to be concerned with during DIY projects. Parents should always remember that while hammers, saws and materials may not seem interesting to them, it can be a whole different story for a child. Ashe says that avoiding these types of "immediate" injuries, as he calls them, just takes some forethought, common sense and parental enforcement. "Injuries from these hazards can be easily avoided by using common sense, keeping a clean work environment, maintaining good communication, and setting – and enforcing – boundaries with your kids," he says.
While there are many potential dangers in any remodeling project, most jobs can be done safely, even with little ones underfoot. "If researched and executed thoughtfully and correctly, any job you take on can be completely safe," Ashe says. "The key to safety with any project is common sense."