By Krista Peterson
Environmental health is not limited to plant and animal life; human health is also a concern. While we tend to think of pollutants as man-made chemicals that contaminate our environment, there are also many naturally-occurring substances that humans have turned into pollutants through overuse or misuse. Some of these are used in buildings and can therefore have serious effects on indoor air quality. When renovating or working in older buildings, be mindful of the presence of these substances.
When the materials containing asbestos are damaged or worn, tiny fibers of the material break away and float into the air, where they can be breathed into the lungs. Once in the body, these fibers can cause a variety of health problems, including lung scarring, asbestosis, and mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs. Symptoms of mesothelioma can lay dormant for 20 to 50 years before becoming apparent, and when they do, they can easily be confused with other, less deadly lung problems. Since there is often a delay in diagnosis, mesothelioma life expectancy is, on average, only 9 to 12 months. Because of the seriousness of these health consequences, asbestos should only be removed and disposed of by licensed abatement teams.
Like asbestos, the lead paint isn’t dangerous when undisturbed. However, once the paint starts to chip and peel – and especially when painted materials are sanded, cut, or demolished – the lead can become dust that, once again, can be easily breathed into the lungs. Heavy metal poisoning affects nearly every system in the body, particularly the nervous system. It is most dangerous for infants and children, whose nervous systems are still developing, and babies still in the womb. As of April 2010, the EPA requires that any construction or renovation job that will disturb more than six square feet of lead-based paint be undertaken by a certified professional.
Professional abatement teams have access to specialized protective equipment such as masks and respirators that protect their lungs from the dangers of airborne substances like lead and asbestos. As tempting as it might be to undertake these jobs one’s self, it is not worth the health risks. Mesothelioma symptoms are almost always fatal, and lead poisoning can affect a child (or an adult) for the rest of his or her life. The quality of the air in a home or office can have profound consequences and should be carefully monitored in order to protect the health of the inhabitants.