Our homes are our sanctuaries—the places we go to feel safe. Sometimes, though, problems arise that can threaten that sense of security. We worry about fire, or intruders or other common fears, but rarely do we consider environmental contaminants, the things that may be in our walls or basements or even the air. Thankfully though, there are ways to deal with those issues and restore that sense of security to the places we call home. Of all the semi-invisible problems that can plague a multi-family residential building, the three most common are lead paint, asbestos and mold. Whether those problems may be present within a building depends on the building itself, however.
“How old is it? What life cycle point is it at?” asks Charles Schwartz, owner and principal consultant of Environmental Assessments & Solutions, Inc. in Brooklyn. “Older buildings may have asbestos and lead that can be of concern,” Schwartz says. But new federal rules on lead paint removal during renovations now must be taken into consideration.
Beginning in April 2010, federal law will require that any contractor that performs renovations, repairs and painting projects that disturb lead-based paint in homes, child care facilities, and schools built before 1978 must be certified and follow specific work practices to prevent lead contamination. This law will apply to single-family homes, as well as multi-family cooperatives and condominiums.
The Big Three
So why do things like lead and asbestos exist in the city’s buildings at all? In short, because they were thought to be effective and safe building materials at the time of their use. “Lead was a good paint,” says Josh Sarett of Manhattan-based ALC Environmental, which specializes in environmental remediation. “It was durable, it had a good shine and a good finish.” It wasn’t until later that people realized that peeling lead paint was poisonous, and posed particular risk to small children.
Asbestos, which was used for fireproofing as far back as the Greek and Roman eras, has long been used in manufacturing and building because of its seemingly indestructible nature. The word “asbestos,” in fact, comes from a Greek word meaning “inextinguishable” or “indestructible.” Because it proved so useful, people ignored or overlooked the health hazards associated with it—ranging from respiratory irritation to cancer. Not until the 1970s did the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) begin regulating its use.