The Full Story
So many poison prevention stories are about children, but when it comes to home remodeling, adults are at risk, too. Children, adults, and pets can become sick if home renovations are not carried out carefully. Here is a brief guide to planning a poison-safe home renovation.
Lead poisoning: Homes built before 1978 are likely to contain lead-based paint. Lead is a dangerous poison for everyone, but especially for young children and fetuses. Lead is released into the air when leaded paint is sanded or heated. We absorb lead by inhaling or swallowing lead dust and inhaling fumes. Once absorbed, lead moves to the bones. Small amounts are regularly released into our bloodstream, but enough lead remains in bones to last a lifetime. Our bodies have no need for lead and limited ability to remove it, so many body organs are affected.
In children, lead damages the still-developing brain and nervous system, causing lowered IQ, learning difficulties, and behavior problems. It also affects a number of other body systems, causing a host of physical problems from hearing damage to stomach distress. At high enough levels, lead poisoning can cause seizures, coma, and death. Unfortunately, children have become critically ill because home renovations exposed them to large amounts of lead.
High levels of lead in adults can cause high blood pressure, kidney disease, and nervous system problems. Homeowners who didn't understand how important it is to remove lead safely have developed serious lead poisoning. (And pets can become lead-poisoned, too).
These are dire effects. How can they be prevented? Before an older home is renovated, paint should be tested for lead content. There are lead-test kits approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) available at hardware stores, but for a major renovation it might be best to have a certified contractor perform the tests. If lead paint is present, and is intact, the best option is usually to cover it up so that it can't flake or deteriorate. If renovations are needed, a certified contractor should remove it. Effective April 2010, contractors who remove lead-based paint are required to be certified; homeowners should request a copy of the certification.
Paints: Use only paints intended for indoor use inside your home. Some outdoor paints contain fungicides; these may not be safe to breathe indoors. (In the past, some paints contained mercury as a fungicide; young children developed mercury poisoning from breathing in the fumes. This is an example of why it's important to dispose of old construction products safely, according to your community guidelines.)
Some people are sensitive to, or prefer not to be exposed to, volatile organic solvents, or "VOC"s. These types of paint fumes may cause irritation of the eyes, nose, and lungs. Questions have been raised about their safety, as well. It is now possible to buy indoor paints labeled "low VOCs" or "zero VOCs". Discuss this with the retailer when buying new indoor paint for your home.
Carbon monoxide poisoning: Fuel-burning appliances and cars are the usual sources of carbon monoxide poisoning. There are other carbon monoxide poisoning threats when doing renovation projects.
Paint strippers and solvents: A number of chemicals are used to dissolve paint. One of the most common is methylene chloride. Using it safely, according to label directions is critical. Methylene chloride is absorbed into the body by inhaling the fumes or getting it on your skin. The body changes some of the methylene chloride into carbon monoxide – and no one expects carbon monoxide poisoning from a solvent! Effects can range from dizziness and shortness of breath to a heart attack.
Generators: When used indoors, generators used to power lights and tools can release carbon monoxide fumes into the air. Carbon monoxide gas is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. It is possible to be poisoned without even realizing that you're breathing in carbon monoxide. Symptoms are vague at first: headache, upset stomach, and drowsiness. If you continue to breathe in carbon monoxide, you can become unconscious, develop seizures, and die. If a generator is needed for a home improvement project, be sure that it is placed outside, not in a garage or under an open window. A carbon monoxide alarm in the workspace can provide a warning if carbon monoxide gas begins to accumulate, despite your precautions.
Chemical poisoning: Many types of products are used in typical home improvement and renovation projects. It's important to follow label safety instructions about protective equipment (goggles, gloves, respiratory protection) and ventilation.
During renovations, adults AND children have been poisoned by solvents, polishes, cleaning solutions, and other chemicals. This often happens when a product is transferred from its original container into a food or beverage container. Recently, an adult died when he drank from a soda bottle that someone had put a strong cleaning product into. Children are poisoned when a product is left on the floor, chair, or low table, instead of being stored high, locked in a safe place. (Ideally, children and pets should be elsewhere while you are working on your project.)
Plan your project safely. If you think someone has touched, swallowed, or breathed in a poison, call Poison Control right away at 1-800-222-1222. Poison specialists will ask you about what happened and then tell you exactly what to do. They will help you 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Rose Ann Gould Soloway, RN, BSN, MSEd, DABAT emerita
Berg R. Lead in adults: the lesser concern rears its head. J Environ Health. 2009;72(5):8-14.
Warniment C, Tsang K, Galazka SS. Lead poisoning in children. Am Fam Physician. 2010;81(6):751-757, 759-760.
- Avoid lead poisoning in homes built and painted before the late 1970s.
- Follow instructions to the letter when using paints and chemicals for remodeling projects.
This Really Happened
A married couple and their children, a five-year-old girl and a 20-month-old boy, moved into a nineteenth century Victorian farmhouse in rural upstate New York in June 1987. Most of the home's solid wood floors, wood moldings, and door frames had been covered with multiple coats of lead-based paint. The walls had also been covered with multiple coats of lead-based paint and wallpaper.
From mid-August through October of 1987, the house underwent major renovation which involved removing the multiple layers of paint down to the original wood. Some of the walls were stripped of paint and paper and two ceilings required extensive repair. To avoid the renovation the family went on vacation in early August and returned in mid-September but on their return they found the work only partially completed. Work areas had not been sealed off while the work was being performed. A thick dust had spread throughout the house. Partial cleanup had been done immediately prior to the family's return. The work continued while the family lived in the home.
In mid-October, the family noticed that their 10-year-old dog (Dog 1) began "shaking and twisting." She was evaluated by the veterinarian who suspected lead poisoning based on her symptoms and blood work results. Both family dogs had been home throughout the renovation process. Dog 1's blood lead level was very elevated and she was given chelation therapy (a method of removing certain heavy metals from the blood stream). However after three days the dog deteriorated further and died shortly after due to kidney failure. Dog 2, also 10 years old, was also found to have an elevated blood lead level and was successfully treated with chelation therapy.
In November, the wife and mother of the family, who worked from home, reported feeling tired and weak. Her daughter complained of stomach aches. The family's husband and father, who worked outside the home five days a week, had an episode of severe nausea after spending a weekend at home while renovation work was proceeding. The mother, five-year-old daughter and 20-month old son were all found to have high blood lead levels and were admitted to the hospital for chelation therapy. The father's blood lead level was not elevated. The children required several courses of chelation therapy and did well. The father had no further symptoms aside from the nausea and his blood lead level remained low two months after completion of the renovation.
A babysitter had worked in the home frequently during the renovation and had brought her own children, a two-year-old girl and a three-year-old boy with her while babysitting. Her children were also found to have elevated blood lead levels and were admitted to the hospital for chelation therapy. There was no information on the two workers who performed the renovation work and presumably had the heaviest lead exposure.
These cases illustrate that illness of a family pet can be a warning sign of a toxic environmental exposure and that prevention of lead poisoning in young children requires widespread screening not only in urban areas but in rural and suburban areas as well.
Reference: Marino, P.E., Landrigan, P.J., Graef, J., Nussbaum, A., Bayan, G., Boch, K., & Boch, S. A case report of lead paint poisoning during renovation of a Victorian farmhouse. American Journal of Public Health. 1990;80(10):1183-1185.