Sharp saw blades and nail-studded 2-by-4s are obvious home-remodeling hazards. But other dangers aren't as easy to spot. For example, tiny fibers from insulation, or dust kicked up into the air when old walls come down, can settle on everything from doorknobs to the dinner table.
Here are five serious contaminants associated with common building materials:
¢ Arsenic. A carcinogenic heavy metal, arsenic is known to cause everything from contact dermatitis and diarrhea to kidney damage. It's found in pressure-treated wood preserved with chromated copper arsenate (CCA), which was used before 2004 to construct residential decks, foundations, and play sets. If you have such wood, stain or seal it and wear a NIOSH-approved N95 respirator mask while sanding or sawing it. Never burn or incinerate it. Newer wood preservatives - such as alkaline copper quaternary (ACQ), copper azole, and sodium silicate - are less toxic.
¢ Asbestos. Found in a number of materials made before 1990 (such as insulation for piping, boilers, and furnaces, floor and ceiling tiles, and certain adhesives), asbestos is a microscopic fiber that can lead to cancer, if inhaled. If you have building materials that you suspect contain asbestos, don't disturb them. Instead, go to www.leadlisting.com to locate a local asbestos-abatement contractor, who can remove or encapsulate the material as necessary.
¢ Fiberglass. The jury is still out on the long-term health effects of fiberglass, which can irritate the skin, eyes, nose and throat. Fiberglass is ubiquitous, found in wall and attic insulation in about 90 percent of U.S. homes. If you're working with or around fiberglass insulation, wear a hat, long-sleeved shirt, pants, safety-glasses with side shields, gloves, and a NIOSH-approved N95 respirator mask. Safer alternatives to exposed fiberglass include cellulose or fully encapsulated fiberglass batts.
¢ Lead. Even in small doses, lead can stunt cognitive development and cause behavioral problems in children. In adults, it can prompt high blood pressure, and reproductive and kidney ills. The source of most home-based lead is paint manufactured before 1978, but it also can be found in old faucets, plumbing pipes, solder, and in some ceramics and crystal. Lead-paint removal is best left to certified specialists. Find one by calling the National Lead Information Center (800-424-5323) and go to www.epa .gov/lead for more information. You can paint over intact pigments, but avoid sanding, scraping, heating, or otherwise disturbing areas where lead might lurk. Replace lead pipes and solder, and install a water filter that removes lead. Flush faucets for at least 30 seconds before using the water for cooking or drinking.
¢ Volatile organic compounds. VOCs are noxious chemicals - such as formaldehyde, benzene and xylene - that can trigger headaches, dizziness and nausea in the short term, and cause chronic respiratory problems. VOCs are emitted from carpeting, caulk, cleaners, glues, paints, plastics, pressed wood products and stains. If you're working with these materials, wear a snug-fitting respirator with organic filter cartridges, and open windows and use fans or work outside. You can minimize exposure to VOCs by buying products made from untreated solid wood, and by using nontoxic finishes and cleaning supplies labeled low-VOC. Water-based latex paints typically contain fewer VOCs than oil-based alkyd paints.
Whatever your home remodeling task, seal off work areas from the rest of the home and wipe down and air out the entire house once the job is done.