Restoring Health and Safety: Addressing Asbestos, Lead and Other Hazardous Materials During Restoration

When restoring an older building, you may come across hazardous materials. Identifying them and knowing what to do if you see any is vital. Hazardous materials can cause adverse health effects, ranging from allergic reactions to severe medical conditions like cancer. Check out this guide to learn about the health hazards associated with renovation projects and how to address them.

What Are the Health Hazards Associated With Restoration Projects?

Some common health hazards associated with restoration projects are building materials containing asbestos, lead and polychlorinated biphenyls and mold.


Asbestos is a mineral fiber found in rock and soil. It has strong fibers and heat resistance properties, making it common in building materials as an insulator and fire retardant. Only a few uses of asbestos are banned in the United States. You can find asbestos in:
  • Attic and wall insulation that contains vermiculite.
  • Walls and floors surrounding wood-burning stoves.
  • Vinyl sheet flooring backing and adhesives.
  • Shingles on roofs and siding.
  • Vinyl floor tiles.
  • Hot water or steam pipes coated or covered in asbestos materials.
  • Textured patching compounds and paint.
  • Heat-resistant fabrics.
  • Insulation in coal and oil furnaces and door gaskets.
Asbestos exposure occurs when you disturb the asbestos-containing material and release the fibers into the air. The symptoms of asbestos exposure include:
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Hoarseness
  • Persistent cough that worsens
  • Blood in the fluid coughed up from the lungs
  • Chest pain or tightening
  • Appetite loss
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Face or neck swelling
  • Fatigue
  • Anemia
  • Weight loss
Serious health effects of asbestos exposure include lung cancer, mesothelioma — a rare cancer found in the thin lining of the chest, lungs, abdomen or heart — and asbestosis — a noncancerous lung disease. Before you begin a remodeling project, consider hiring a trained and accredited asbestos professional to inspect the building for asbestos-containing materials. If you think you have come across asbestos-containing materials in your building, your best bet is to leave the site undisturbed and contact a professional.


Lead is an element found in the earth’s crust. High levels of exposure can be toxic to humans and animals and cause health effects. Most lead exposure in buildings occurs from lead-based paints, pipes and plumbing materials. Buildings built before 1978 are more likely to have lead-based paint, and 80% of homes in Rhode Island were built before 1978.
Lead exposure during renovation work often happens when you breathe in lead dust from areas with deteriorating lead-based paint or disturb lead-based painted surfaces. Lead dust moves to the bones once you inhale, and small amounts periodically enter the bloodstream, affecting many organs. High lead levels in adults can cause kidney disease, high blood pressure and nervous system problems. Lead poisoning in children can cause learning difficulties, behavioral problems, lowered IQs, hearing damage, stomach distress, seizures, comas and death. You can lower your risk of lead exposure in older buildings by:
  • Consulting a certified lead professional: Certified lead professionals can let you know if lead-based paint is present before you undergo renovations.
  • Containing your work area: Containing your work area prevents dust and debris from entering other places in the building. You can section off the work area by emptying the room, using plastic sheets, closing and sealing doors and windows and turning off the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system.
  • Wearing appropriate personal protective equipment: Personal protective equipment, like masks, prevents you from inhaling or ingesting lead.
  • Minimizing dust: You can reduce dust with the proper supplies, such as sandpaper, a pump sprayer, a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) vacuum cleaner, masking tape, a utility knife, plastic sheeting, plastic bags, paper towels, a low-temperature heat gun, chemical strippers and power tools with HEPA filters.
  • Cleaning your work area: Clean your work area at the end of the day and once your project is complete.
  • Controlling waste: Collect and control your waste to prevent dust from releasing into the air. Check your local and state disposal laws to dispose of your renovation waste properly.

Polychlorinated Biphenyls

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are artificial organic chemicals containing hydrogen, carbon and chlorine atoms. PCB manufacturing was banned in 1979 because of its toxicity. But the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) thinks there was potential widespread use of PCBs in buildings built or renovated from 1950 to 1979. You can find PCBs in:
  • Caulk
  • Transformers and capacitors
  • Fluorescent light ballasts
  • Thermal insulation materials like fiberglass, cork, foam and felt
  • Plastics
  • Adhesives and tapes
  • Oil-based paints
  • Floor finishes
  • Cable insulation
  • Electrical equipment like voltage regulators, switches, re-closers, bushings and electromagnets
PCB exposure can cause cancer and other serious health effects on the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems. However, the presence of PCBs isn’t a cause for immediate alarm. Severe health effects occur when PCBs leak into the air and you breathe them in. Before beginning a renovation project on an antiquated building, you should test the materials for PCBs.


Mold becomes a problem indoors when the spores grow in moist areas. Several types of mold exist, including:
  • Allergenic: This mold produces allergens and irritants that cause allergic reactions. They can cause hay fever, allergy, and flu-like symptoms. A common allergenic mold is Alternaria, which is dark green and spotted. Alternaria grows near water sources, so it’ll probably point to water damage.
  • Toxigenic: Toxigenic molds are dangerous and release toxic chemicals. A common toxigenic mold is black mold, which is black or dark green. It’s common on walls, ceilings, and floorboards.
  • Pathogenic: Pathogenic molds can cause severe illnesses and infections. Trichoderma is a common pathogenic mold that has white and green spots.
If you find mold, it’s best to determine its type and cause. Mold grows in moist environments, so the building has a moisture problem and likely water damage. Addressing the cause and removing the mold is the only way to prevent significant issues later.

Contact Rhode Island Restoration for Help with Your Renovation Project

It’s essential to ensure health and safety practices for renovation projects, especially when restoring old buildings. Various health hazards can reside in the building materials, so you must be cautious when handling them. But if you notice any problems like mold or water damage, you can hire an experienced restoration company to clean it up and get your project back on track. Rhode Island Restoration offers 24/7 emergency services and can restore residential and commercial properties damaged by mold, water, fire, and more. Let us take the risk for you! Call us today at 401-834 FIRE (3473) to request a free quote or complete our online contact form.

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