Here we are, its Earth Day, the one day we focus on how our decisions impact our climate. Did you know it goes deeper and can be applied to any decision we make? Its not just about coffee cups or the big developer planing a building next to our creeks and watersheds.
Last week, as I was watching Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos on Netflix , I realized how incredibly uneducated the public is about our built-environment’s poisonous components. In episode 7 “the Clean Room,” which originally aired April 20th 2014, he mentions that Ancient Romans had inadvertently poisoned their own water lines by using lead pipes in their aqueduct systems and that they realized it and mandated a change to their fresh water systems. In our very own time, lead was brought back and in full force by manufacturing companies pushing their own agenda, much like how “Big Tobacco” has pushed theirs by publishing partial data and quieting the hazardous effects caused by their “natural product” and ignoring the symptoms of their workers because they were of a lower class.
The thing is “natural” isn’t always best. Mercury is natural, it brought many Victorian women a clear porcelain complexion… just before causing untimely deaths of many and the poisoning of global fish (aka food) populations today. Lead is a naturally occurring element too, but while health officials simply ask parents if they live in a home built before the 1970’s with pealing paint, most people are simply living with it. Dr. Tyson’s show goes on to show how Clair Cameron Patterson created the first “clean room” just to eliminate the interference of lead present within the laboratory he was working in. As he was performing his experiments examining lead’s decaying values in from a meteorite to accurately calculate the Earth’s age his data was thrown off significantly even after he swabbed and cleaned the laboratory in detail. It causes me to wonder, if this is the effect of lead in a “stable” environment, how much more are the effects of lead in a remodel when walls are being torn open and fine dust particles are flying everywhere?
The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has realized the dangers of dust and is continually making efforts to implement restrictions for our safety. Many of these measures started in California when I was a kid in the 70’s and 80’s. If you’ve been searching for stained glass windows or their repair recently, you may have noticed that you can no-longer get “real” lead for the joints only simulated materials are available. Lead based paints are no longer sold, and that “un-leaded” option at the gas pump, if you haven’t noticed, is the only option unless you have diesel engine. So they’re doing a good job of keeping toxic metals out of our current economy, but there is still the remodeling issue.
Most of the homes I’ve been involved in remodeling were built before 1978, and all of them needed to be gutted to the studs, thus removing the drywall and its lead based paint. Today there are abatement (hazmat) regulations for remodeling professionals to contain the lead, keep it from becoming air-born, and preventing it from being absorbed into the soils and natural resources. Too often homeowners mention that they want to save some costs by demolishing their space first. While this seems like a “good idea” it scares me to think of the toxicity they will be exposing themselves to at the expense of their health, their children’s health, and the increase in Dr’s visits paying in small increments co-pay after co-pay not to mention the unknown underlying their symptoms. The EPA has considered Do-It-Yourselfers by setting forth some guidelines, but there are still health risks.
So where do you turn? Unfortunately the State of California, who is a self-certifying state, only lists the individuals who are certified, without their firm name, for the East Bay, San Francisco and Peninsula areas. I typically introduce homeowners to contractors who are NARI (National Association of the Remodeling Industry) professionals . NARI has offered Lead Removal Certification training programs for the cleanest demolition possible. Why? NARI has high industry standards and health and safety are at the top of the list. Lead exposure in any amount is not good for the human body, so why take the risk ? Even if you’re not doing it yourself, be sure to ask your general contractor if they have a certified team to remove the lead from your home.
As with most decisions in remodeling it’s up to you to weigh it out. Is keeping your short-term remodeling budget low more important than your long-term health? Just because “it’s always been done this way” is the accepted attitude in society doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ask questions and make adjustments. As a designer and advisor to homeowners, I can only recommend the best practices, you are the only one who can make the best decisions.