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While many of us become enamored with the aesthetics of a remodeling project - the new tile floors, the great counters and updated appliances - the remodeling industry says it's important to keep potential environmental hazards, including lead and asbestos, in mind when remodeling.

That's especially true with the remodeling of older homes. The National Association of the Remodeling Industry says more than a million homes are renovated and remodeled each year - a $214 billion industry.

NARI says steps should be taken to minimize pollution sources, whether it's from new materials or from disturbing existing materials in the home.

The group suggests that if you're getting ready to embark on a remodeling project, you should ask your contractor what you can do to prevent contamination. That may include keeping your pets from walking through the area being remodeled and by leaving plastic sheeting in place.

"Dealing with environmental issues is a very real concern today for professional remodelers," said Mark Stephenson, of Hub Design Build in Villanova, Penn.

One of the major concerns is lead. The Consumer Product Safety Commission says houses built before 1978 have paint that contains lead. People can get lead poisoning if they put their hands or other objects covered with lead dust in their mouths, eat paint chips or soil that contain lead, or breathe in lead dust (especially during renovations that disturb painted surfaces). Lead is even more dangerous to children than adults.

Children with high levels of lead can suffer from damage to the brain and nervous system, hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems, and headaches. Adults also suffer a range of potentially serious problems.

You can get your home checked for lead hazards in one of two ways, or both: A paint inspection tells you the lead content of every painted surface in your home. It won't tell you whether the paint is a hazard or how you should deal with it. A risk assessment tells you if there are any sources of serious lead exposure (such as peeling paint and lead dust). It also tells you what actions to take to address these hazards.

If not conducted properly, certain types of renovations can release lead from paint and dust into the air.

The CPSC says you should take the following precautions before you begin remodeling or renovations that disturb painted surfaces (such as scraping off paint or tearing out walls):

  • Have the area tested for lead-based paint.
  • Do not use a dry scraper, belt-sander, propane torch, or heat gun to remove lead-based paint. These actions create large amounts of lead dust and fumes. Lead dust can remain in your home long after the work is done.
  • Temporarily move your family (especially children and pregnant women) out of the apartment or house until the work is done and the area is properly cleaned. If you can't move your family, at least completely seal off the work area.
  • Follow other safety measures to reduce lead hazards. You can find out about other safety measures by calling 1-800-424-LEAD. Ask for the brochure "Reducing Lead Hazards When Remodeling Your Home." This brochure explains what to do before, during, and after renovations.
  • Another contaminant to be on the lookout for is asbestos, a mineral fiber that, when breathed in high amounts, can lead to an increased risk of lung cancer. The CPSC says that many building materials made up until the 1970s contained asbestos, including:
  • Steam pipes, boilers and furnace ducts insulated with an asbestos blanket or asbestos paper tape. These materials may release asbestos fibers if damaged, repaired, or removed improperly.
  • Resilient floor tiles like (vinyl asbestos, asphalt, and rubber), the backing on vinyl sheet flooring and adhesives used for installing floor tile. Sanding or scraping tiles or their backing can release fibers.
  • Cement sheet, millboard and paper used as insulation around furnaces and woodburning stoves. Repairing or removing appliances may release asbestos fibers.
  • Soundproofing or decorative material sprayed on walls and ceilings. Loose, crumbly, or water-damaged material may release fibers. So will sanding, drilling, or scraping the material.
  • Asbestos cement roofing, shingles and siding. If sawed or cut, these materials may release asbestos.

As a general rule, if the material is in good condition, it won't release asbestos fibers.

You can't tell whether a material contains asbestos by looking at it, unless it is labeled. If in doubt, have it sampled and analyzed by a qualified professional.

A professional should take samples for analysis, since a professional knows what to look for, and because there may be an increased health risk if fibers are released. In fact, if done incorrectly, sampling can be more hazardous than leaving the material alone.

The CPSC says anyone who samples asbestos-containing materials should have as much information as possible on the handling of asbestos before sampling, and at a minimum, should observe the following procedures.

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