Hidden Dangers of Home Renovations: Silica, Asbestos, and Respiratory Protection
Physical hazards are generally taken seriously, but when hazards are invisible and their effects are delayed, they go unnoticed. Despite its importance, respiratory protection during home improvement projects is often times neglected, unlike hearing, sight, and body protection. You need your lungs to breathe just as much as you need your eyes to see and ears to hear, so why isn’t respiratory protection used as frequently?
Silica Standards and Dangers
For the first time in 40 years, OSHA updated their silica standards for workplace safety. These standards now guarantee workers are provided proper protection against health risks from respirable crystalline silica, or RCS for short. Before we get into prevention and protection, what is crystalline silica and why is it dangerous to our health?
Silica is a compound that is typically found in materials such as rock, sand, and concrete. In and of itself, silica is not hazardous; however, if grinded, cut, jackhammered, or drilled, tiny particles of dust are generated and pose serious health risks when inhaled. Over time, microscopic silica dust fills and scars the lungs making it very difficult to breathe. This is known as Silicosis.
Silicosis is a form of lung disease that is most commonly seen in workers within the mining, metal, and glass industries. Silicosis can develop in the lungs anywhere from a few weeks to a few decades after exposure. There are three common types of silicosis:
- acute, which occurs within weeks
- chronic, which occurs 10 – 30 years after exposure
- accelerated, which occurs within 10 years of extreme RCS exposure
While there is currently no cure for silicosis, this condition is preventable through proper safety programs and protective equipment. OSHA’s updated silica standards are estimated to prevent almost 1,000 cases of silicosis each year, and in turn, save more than 600 lives.
Personal Protective Equipment: Respiratory Protectors
In the workplace, personal protective equipment is provided by the employer. When starting a home improvement project, do you remember to provide that equipment for yourself? Home improvement projects pose just as much danger to your respiratory system as working in a plant or facility. Prior to starting any renovations, ensure you have a good understanding of how your project can potentially affect your breathing and the type of tools you’ll need to stay safe.
The only way to truly protect your lungs when exposed to RCS is through the use of proper respirators. Respirators can filter out contaminants in the air but only do so when selected and used properly. There are two main types of respiratory protectors, each with a different purpose.
- Air–Purifying Respirators (APR): remove contaminants from the air through a filter, cartridge, or canister.
- Supplied-Air Respirators: provide clean air from an uncontaminated source.
Full protection from a respirator is only achieved after proper fit and functionality testing. Before using a respirator, remember to conduct a seal check so make sure there are no leaks when inhaling or exhaling.
- To check for exhalation leaks: Cover the exhalation port of the mask with your hand and exhale strongly – if the mask does not slightly bulge or you feel air escape, replace the mask immediately.
- To check for inhalation leaks: Cover the cartridges with your hands and inhale strongly – if the mask does not slightly collapse or you feel air enter, replace the mask immediately.
Properly fitted and working respirators should only allow air in and out from the appropriate components.
Hazards, work environment, and user factors play a large role in determining which respirator type is most appropriate. In the workplace, combination respirators are most commonly used. On the other hand, disposable N95 APRs are typically enough for home projects, and are cheap and easy to find. Some may come with a built in exhalation port, but others may look like basic dust masks which cannot be used in place of APRs as they do not provide proper protection.
Do it Yourself: Safety
Before starting projects at home, there are a few things you must consider about your own breathing to stay safe. First, how is your current state of health? For those who suffer from chronic lung or respiratory conditions, such as asthma or allergies, particles from dust and fumes may cause irritation. APRs also require the lungs to work much harder than usual which may be too much for some individuals. Next, ask yourself if this is really a task you can safely do on your own. If you do not feel that you are capable of safely executing the project, a home services professional can complete it quicker and safer. Lastly, if you decide to carry on with your project, what tools do you need and what elements are you working with?
Protective equipment varies depending on what you are encountering so it is important to establish this before starting.
DIY home improvement projects are more complicated in older homes, especially those built before the mid-1980s. These houses may contain dangerous fibers and substances, such as asbestos, and work arounds may be difficult. Self-renovations in newer homes may not pose an asbestos danger but can still pose a safety risk from dust or silica.
Dangers of Asbestos
When working in older homes, asbestos fibers may become exposed and can create serious health risks. If inhaled, these fibers can stick in the lungs and airways and cause internal tissue damage. Older home remodeling plans should always include a safety plan for removing or containing asbestos. Here are a few common places where asbestos can hide in your home:
- Flat roofing material
- Decorative plaster
- Drywall patching
- Insulation (HVAC, pipes, furnaces, etc.)
While no amount of asbestos exposure is safe, there are degrees of exposure, each with differing health risks. A one-time or light short-term exposure rarely comes with associated risks. On the other hand, an extreme short-term exposure can significantly elevate those risks. Typically, the risk of asbestos related disease or cancers is more of a concern for those regularly exposed to the material.
If you are exposed to asbestos, notify your doctor. Although the effects of asbestos exposure are not immediately visible, it is good to have the information in your medical file. Unless you inhaled a significant amount of dust, the exposure will most likely not have a negative impact on your health, but exposures do add up. Try to avoid asbestos exposure in the future and consult asbestos abatement professional as needed.
Asbestos identification and removal should only be done by trained professionals to limit the possibility of exposure. Taking the steps towards a safe home renovation can save you time and money and protect your health and the health of your loved ones.
Similar to asbestos exposure, respirable crystalline silica can also pose serious health concerns during renovation. When tearing down drywall or breaking concrete with a jackhammer, RCS, dust, and other hazardous material are airborne. The more you breathe, the more your lungs fill like an hour glass.
Whatever home improvement project you choose to take on, always remember to put safety first. Never start any project without the proper respiration protection. Once you are properly fitted with a functioning respirator, your work can begin.
Learn more about asbestos and silicosis exposure:
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