Common airborne hazards in the thrift and reuse world

Salvage Crew member removing flooring

Home ownership is an exciting and wonderful experience, and renovating your new space is a great way to make your house feel like a home. Before you break out the power tools, it’s necessary to consider the health and safety of your family throughout the renovation process. Many homes built before the 80’s contain a multitude of materials that we now recognize as hazardous. In this blog, we’ll detail some of the common materials that can become airborne hazards and ways to avoid exposure to these hazards. 

We recommend you always wear PPE, or personal protective equipment, when completing home renovation projects. Gloves, safety glasses, and a dust mask or respirator are a must. We also suggest you wear pants and a long sleeve shirt as well as ear protection if you plan to use power tools. And, as always, keep food and drink in a separate area. 

Before you start, remember to work wet and work clean. Many airborne hazards are dust particles created during the cutting, drilling, prying, sanding, sawing or general breakdown of other materials. When these particles break down, they become respirable meaning they can get small enough that we can inhale them. 

Before you begin, lightly mist your work surface with a spray bottle. Mist frequently to keep the surface damp, but not soaked. Work in a manner that reduces the creation of dust. Avoid tracking dust out of your work area, and wash any clothing separately. During clean up, lightly mist piles of dust and debris and wipe up with a damp rag or a HEPA filter vacuum. Avoid sweeping, as this often creates dust in the air. 

In the case of biological material such as rodent feces or mold, thoroughly wet contaminated areas with a bleach solution of 1.5 cups bleach in 1 gallon water. Let soak for five minutes. Wipe up contaminated materials with a damp towel then mop or sponge the area with bleach solution. Double bag and dispose of contaminated material. Disinfect gloves before removing, then thoroughly wash hands with warm water and soap. 

Common hazards

  • Lead   – Is a metal common in many building materials. It was commonly used in homes built prior to 1978, most commonly in paint. Lead is a cumulative toxin, meaning there’s no expelling it from your body once you’ve been exposed. Lead exposure can cause high blood pressure and kidney damage in adults, and can result in brain and nervous system damage in children. 
    • Where it’s found: Lead commonly shows up as paint in older homes and furnishings, lead pipe, solder, fishing weights, and accumulated dust. 
  • Mold – Is an incredibly common fungus. Mold is often harmless, but some strains of mold produce hazardous spores called mycotoxins that can result in a wide variety of health issues. If you have sinus or respiratory problems like asthma or a weakened immune system, you are at the greatest risk for mold exposure.
    • Where it’s found: Mold can be found coating nearly all surfaces, such as carpets, drywall, insulation, sub-flooring, and stone that have been exposed to moisture. If you can’t easily remove the mold from a surface by spraying with bleach solution and wiping, you should throw the moldy item away. 
  • Crystalline Silica – Is a common mineral found in the earth’s crust. It is commonly found in a wide variety of products such as sand, stone, concrete, mortar, pottery and more. When inhaled, silica can cut and scar your airways resulting in the development of autoimmune disorders and cardiovascular impairment. Symptoms of inhaling silica are not obvious, but can show up as shortness of breath, chest pain or respiratory failure. 
    • Where it’s found: Commonly, crystalline silica can be found in the solid state as concrete and stone countertops. It is also sold as dust or powder, such as in concrete mix, grout and mortar.
  • Hantavirus – Deer mice, cotton rats, and other rodents can transmit a group of viruses called hantaviruses that can cause a rare but deadly disease called hantavirus pulmonary syndrome. Hantavirus can be transmitted through inhalation or ingestion of contaminated saliva and feces or through rodent bites. Disturbing dried rodent droppings can distribute infectious particulate through the air.  Since 1994, 1-5 cases of Hanta have been reported in Washington State per year and one in three of those cases results in death.
    • Where it’s found: Rodent droppings can find there way in many places. You can be exposed by disturbing areas with rodent populations. Activities such as sweeping and cleaning can often expose rodent droppings. 
  • Asbestos – Asbestos is a natural mineral that has long been mined and used for its durability, heat and chemical resistance. Doctors and scientists today recognize that inhaling asbestos can cause cancer and mesothelioma. When disturbed and inhaled or ingested, asbestos fibers can work their way through the body into the lining of the lungs, abdomen and heart. This in turn can cause inflammation and scarring resulting in tumors and other health issues. 
    • Where it’s found: Asbestos was commonly used in thousands of products before the 1980’s. Many of these products are still in place in older homes and buildings, but in rare instances asbestos is still used today. It can be found in construction products, automotive parts, electrical material, protective and fireproofing materials, military uses and many consumer products.  
    • Proper disposal: Products known to contain asbestos such as floor tiles, popcorn ceiling, roofing, duct insulation and tape, millboard and vermiculite insulation should be bagged and disposed of at CAZ Environmental on Hammer Drive. Before you begin a home renovation project, consider having your home tested for asbestos. Many contractors and organizations in Whatcom County do Asbestos abatement. All deconstruction work done by our salvage crew requires an asbestos abatement test. 
    • More information: https://www.maacenter.org/asbestos/

Airborne hazards are easily avoidable when safe working conditions are prioritized. Plan ahead, wear your PPE and dispose of materials properly. There are many resources in our area that can be contacted to answer health and safety questions. Here are a few:

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