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Top 10 Health Hazards to Avoid When Rehabbing

As perhaps the most popular real estate exit strategy, rehabbing has captured the attention of investors on a national level. Price margins, as a result of the most recent economic downturn, have awarded savvy entrepreneurs a very lucrative business. However, timely and profitable transactions are not the product of a single night’s work. A certain degree of sweat equity must therefore be invested into the property so it may become a viable candidate for a prospective buyer.

Of particular concern, however, are the complications that may accompany a rehab. Investors are faced with potentially dangerous scenarios on every subject property. The nature of this exit strategy inherently comes with a myriad of risks. Accordingly, it is important to familiarize yourself with any hazardous situations that may arise upon conducting a rehab of any magnitude.

Despite risks that are already associated with a typical construction site, properties undergoing a rehab may have several larger issues that need to be addressed. Air-quality issues appear to make up the majority of unexpected risks when remodeling a house. However, not far behind are lesser-known dangers associated with toxic materials. Ultimately, a rehab project is littered with potential health hazards.

We have taken it upon ourselves to educate you on the top 10 health hazards to avoid before you start remodeling a home:

1.) Asbestos

Asbestos was a popular building material used in homes prior to 1980. The naturally occurring silicate mineral was primarily used because of its propensity towards sound absorption, tensile strength and affordability. Products containing asbestos are typically found in walls, heating and plumbing insulation, siding, roofing, flooring caulking, window glaze drywall, joint compound and plaster. However, it has been determined that prolonged exposure to asbestos can cause serious illness including lung cancer and mesothelioma. As a result, the trade and use of asbestos has been restricted or banned in many municipalities.

If your project house was built before 1980, it is strongly advised that you hire an inspector or environmental consultant to check for asbestos before any work begins.

“Always test suspect material,” says Devin Arnett, an environmental consultant in Charlotte, N.C. “It’s cheap, and then you know what you’re dealing with.”

Houses that contain asbestos require abatement and must be taken care of accordingly. Hire a professional to remove any suspect material if you are unsure.

2.) Lead

Lead is a common chemical element found in paint. It was added to paint as a means to speed up drying, increase durability, maintain appearance and resist moisture that causes corrosion. However, it has been deemed an environmental hazard and banned from paint since 1978 in the United States.

Prolonged exposure to lead paint may cause nervous system damage, stunted growth and kidney damage. Exposure often occurs while an individual scraps or sands wood trim. As a result, it is recommended that “remodelers skip stripping and sanding and replace the painted item, such as a window frame. If you own a historic home, hire a lead-certified renovator to complete the stripping safely.”

Due to its toxicity, federal law requires the removal of lead to be conducted by certified contractors. In fact, regulations state that lead must be removed before remodeling a home that was built prior to 1978.

3.) Mold

While mold may help you in negotiating the purchase price of a subject property, it is a health hazard that must be dealt with before a potential rehab can begin. With that being said, no home is safe from this scourge.

Mold is the byproduct of organic material being subjected to the right conditions. It will often grow in a house when moisture (e.g., in the form of humidity, condensation, or water from a leaking pipe, etc.) comes into contact with ceiling tiles, drywall, paper, wood or even natural carpet fibers.

Biological reactions to mold may vary significantly, but some have been known to be deadly. More commonly, prolonged mold exposure can lead to severe allergic reactions. It is important to take the appropriate precautions when working in an area with mold. Always wear a certified respirator in its presence or when the potential persists.

The best practice, regardless of the type or amount of mold, is to promptly clean up any mold growth in your home and to correct the water problem that caused it. Remember; always wear a certified respirator when dealing with a potential mold situation. Sampling, while expensive, will let you know if the problem has been sufficiently eliminated.

4.) Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

A number of common building materials contain what are known as volatile organic compounds. Those materials may include, but are not limited to:

  • Paint
  • Paint Strippers
  • Glues
  • Cleaners
  • Carpeting
  • Flooring
  • Upholstery
  • Cabinet and wood finishes

It is safe to assume every rehab project will involve some degree of VOCs.

They are usually inhaled and can cause severe complications over a prolonged period of time. Some may even be odorless, making them all the more dangerous.

If you inhale a large enough dose of VOCs, they can irritate your eyes or respiratory tract and cause headaches, dizziness, visual disorders and memory impairment.
When possible, choose low- or zero-VOC paints and other finishing materials. Wear a mask and goggles and keep air flowing while working with VOCs inside your home.

5.) Mercury

Mercury is a chemical element that was introduced to heating systems and thermostats in older homes. However, it can also be found in fluorescent bulbs and thermometers. Of particular concern are potential leaks that may occur. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), when a product containing mercury spills, it can emit an odorless toxic vapor, which even in small amounts, can cause learning disabilities and liver damage.

“Mercury vapor is one of the most toxic things on the planet,” says Brent Jorgensen, an environmental consultant in Tualatin, Ore.
Be sure to take extra precaution when handling anything that may have contained, or still does contain, mercury. Again, it is important to always wear a certified respirator when working in an environment that you are unfamiliar with.

6.) Radon

Radon is a naturally occurring noble gas that is emitted from the bedrock of certain geographical regions. Unfortunately, it is radioactive, colorless, odorless and tasteless; so detection can be rather difficult. Homes built on a foundation where radon concentrations have been detected are at risk of the gas leaking into the home and causing potential hazards. According to the EPA, radon exposure may be responsible for the development of lung cancer.

To combat a potential radon leak, pipes may be installed around the foundation of a house. Their strategic placement will allow the network of pipes to successfully and efficiently vent the natural gas outdoors and away from the house.

Projects that add to your home’s footprint need a fresh radon test once the work is complete, as to ensure that no more of the gas is leaking into the house.

7.) Underground Oil Tanks

Familiarize yourself with every aspect of a subject property. This includes whether or not there is an old heating oil take buried in the backyard. These heating relics are typically buried within several feet of the foundation and 7 to 8 feet below ground. They can lay dormant and undisturbed for years, but their presence on your property may serve as a future complication. Hazards may come into play when yards are excavated or property is expanded.

The steel tanks often corrode and leak, causing oil to seep into groundwater or posing as a fire hazard. While standard removal of a heated oil tank can be costly, those that have already begun to leak are significantly more expensive to remove. Tanks may be detected through the use of magnetic scanners or soil tests that sense leaks.

Dangerous leaks are most common in areas that get lots of rain or where groundwater levels are high.

8.) Pressure-Treated Lumber

In an attempt to preserve the longevity of wood products, lumber companies began treating their timber with chemicals to combat natural decay. More specifically, wood that was predicted to be subjected to outdoor conditions was treated with chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, which contains arsenic and has since been banned. The use of CCA preserves the life of wood, but it can have serious side effects when introduced to humans.

Arsenic is linked to some cancers, and it can leach into garden soil. You get in trouble with the treated wood when you’re working directly with it. If the remodeling or landscaping project involves cutting or moving pressure-treated wood, wear gloves. Do not grind the wood or burn it.

9.) Electrical Hazards

As perhaps the most documented hazard associated with home repairs, electrical hazards can be very dangerous. The sheer volume of electrical wiring in the average home elicits extreme caution. Nearly every wall in a typical house is saturated with some variation of wiring. They are even present in exterior walls and in the yard.

With that being said, any rehab project that involves electrical power comes with some degree of risk. More often than not, electrical wiring is responsible for severe shock and fire damage. Wires are particularly volatile in areas where additions have been made, as wear and tear takes a toll on the wires protective casing, making it more prone to causing damage. Exposed wires are a huge safety hazard for anyone rehabbing a house.

Inspector Peter Hopkins of San Diego-based SoCal Infrared, which uses thermal imaging to diagnose energy issues, says that there are unexpected dangers that only a licensed electrician knows to avoid. These include one brand of square outlets that can cause a fire when used with aluminum wiring.

10.) Combustion Appliances

Combustion appliances, while simple in nature, require a precise chemical reaction between fuel and an oxidant to create heat. Common household combustion appliances may include: furnaces, clothes dryers, space heaters, boilers and gas stoves. As per their capabilities, these appliances are typically used to provide heat for the house or food.

Fuel lines are used to feed each appliance, but if neglected, they can turn into a potential safety hazard. Improper handling techniques or leaking pipes could cause a fuel (gas) leak. A leak, in the presence of a spark, is a very dangerous situation. Any point of ignition could cause a significant fire hazard. Therefore, it is important to turn of any lines leading to combustible appliances before conducting work on a subject property.

“Homeowners know not to move these without a professional,” Pope says. “It’s the long-term threats many people don’t understand. Combustion appliances are the air-breathing dragons in your house.”

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