“When I was in my early thirties and working on a 1923 Colonial Revival house, I proudly removed all the 1960s vinyl tiles in the sunroom (using a heat gun bought mail order through OHJ!). I did not wear any sort of mask, nor did I think to have the tiles checked for asbestos. Later I read up on the gruesome health affects possible after exposure to asbestos fibers. I haven’t developed mesothelioma, but I do get bronchitis every winter.” —Mary Ellen Polson
“As a young DIYer, I scraped and stripped and refinished away, all without a mask.” —Mary Ellen Polson
We all take stupid chances when we’re young, and happily short-term exposure mostly leaves us unscathed. Still, word about hazards should go out, especially those from demolition—a common DIY job. If lungs are already vulnerable, even a small repair can hurt. I was recovering from a bad bout of bronchitis last winter when my husband undertook a minor plaster repair with sanding. He wore a dust mask, but the inescapable, fine particulate dust in the house left me gasping.
It’s impossible to know what lurks inside old walls, but a short list of possibilities includes lead (paint), asbestos (insulation, flooring), and formaldehyde (particleboard, adhesives). When scraping paint, doing light demo, or working with products that contain particulates or aerosols, wear a mask designed to filter out pollutants, such as an N95 mask. They cost less than $1 each for a box of 20 and are widely available.
For heavy demolition or work with paint or chemicals that contain high level of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), wear a half- or full-face respirator (about $15 to $35 each).
Respirators seal tightly to the face and come with cartridges that block the inhalation of gases. We’re thankful we took the advice of our neighbor (a chemical engineer) and used half-face respirators when we refinished floors using an oil-based polyurethane containing VOCs.
If you are considering removing vintage flooring or insulation around heat ducts, which could contain asbestos, do not touch it, even to take a sample for testing. Damaged asbestos releases microscopic fibers into the air, which can be inhaled or swallowed. Exposure can cause lung cancers. Normally a result of long-term industrial exposure, mesothelioma has a latency period of 20 to 50 years and is incurable.