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 Renovating safely to protect your health and home environment

ImageAustralians move or renovate on average every seven years and over 50% of home owners will look to renovate at some stage. While renovations offer a great sense of renewal there are hidden costs to our health and the environment.

High levels of chemicals are introduced from materials and products during building and renovating. The resulting indoor chemical pollution is often invisible and so it is difficult for people to make the connection between pollution in their environment and effects on their health. Babies and children are at high risk because they are more susceptible to the health impacts of chemical exposures.

Check out our top five safer renovation tips to help you reduce your exposure to hazardous chemicals during renovations:

1. Design your renovations to minimise the need for hazardous products

Design It is most effective to consider safer renovations at the design stage when you are able to specify safer products and materials as well as ensure your design enhances natural ventilation.

It is easy to get overwhelmed with the number of choices available, which often means we lose sight of what is healthy and sustainable.  But making healthier choices about products and materials does not mean your renovations will be compromised or lacking in style.

Some of the best designs and products are those that consider from the outset: the comfort and safety of people, the use of natural materials and impacts on the environment.

Design tips:

  • Providing plenty of natural ventilation helps to maintain good air quality and reduces mould build-up without using energy.
  • Separating garages from living spaces reduces pollution sources.
  • Choosing low or no emission products and materials limits chemical off-gassing.
  • Opting for low maintenance surfaces and finishes reduces dependence on products into the future.
  • Ensuring cabinetry is tight fitting minimises cracks and crevices where cockroaches and rodents can take up residence.
  • Installing insect screens keeps out insects as well as improves natural ventilation.

For more information on sustainable designs and life cycle assessment of materials see the Centre for Design.

2. Avoid hazardous products and materials

Rather than relying on ventilation systems to dilute pollution to ‘safe’ levels, the most effective way to reduce your exposure to hazardous chemicals during renovations is to avoid using them in the first instance.

Eliminating hazardous chemicals at their source will protect your health and indoor air quality and also has broader environmental benefits:

ProductsBenefits of reducing hazardous chemicals at the source:

  • Keeps the inside air healthy to breathe.
  • Contributes to a safer working environment.
  • Reduces overall reliance on petrochemicals.
  • Reduces energy use.
  • Creates less hazardous waste.
  • Makes materials easier to re-use and recycle.

For information about eco and health preferable products, materials and technologies Ecospecifier is an excellent one-stop shop.

3. Read labels and check product claims

There are a growing number of better products on the market made by companies with integrity and high standards, but be careful not to get caught out thinking you are buying a safer product only to discover later it was a clever marketing ploy. Always read labels carefully and check product claims.

Labels Labels will not tell you everything but they generally state the main ingredients and include important safety, handling and disposal information. Sometimes labels will only give you general categories of chemical ingredients such as ‘hydrocarbon solvent’ or ‘fragrance’. If you want more details about the exact ingredients then contact the manufacturer and request further information such as a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) or technical data sheet, which will provide more details about ingredients and potential hazards associated with the product.

Is it ‘natural’ or ‘organic’?

Claims such as ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ should be checked. A product may contain natural ingredients, but closer inspection might reveal there is only a small percentage of a natural ingredient in the total product.

If a product claims to be ‘organic’, then check to see if it has been certified by an organic certifying organisation. A list of organic certifying organisations can be found on the Organic Federation of Australia’s website.

Look for the Good Environmental Choice Label and visit the site for a list of accredited products.

4. Choose zero or low emission products

Products and materials are often made with various chemical components, which can be emitted or ‘off-gas’ as chemical pollution into the indoor environment. If you choose zero or low emission products you will reduce chemical pollutants in the air.

EmissionsDefining a ‘zero or low emission’ product can be tricky as there are no accepted definitions or standards across all products. You may see claims such as ‘low VOC*’, ‘low odour’, ‘water based’ or ‘solvent-free’ which are all signals that the product probably contains less volatile ingredients.

As a guide the Australian Paint Approval Scheme (APAS) specifies that ‘low odour’ and ‘low environmental impact’ means a maximum of 5g/L of VOCs in untinted wet paint. Note that tints themselves contain high levels of VOCs. The Australian Ecolabelling Association standards for VOCs in indoor paints is <20g/L which includes the VOCs from tints. High VOC paints can contain anything from 80-100g/L.

Plant and mineral based products are those, which do not contain petrochemical ingredients, but have been developed using only nature-derived ingredients. They may still contain some volatile ingredients, such as citrus solvent or natural oil fragrances.

*VOC means Volatile Organic Compounds

For a comprehensive listing of green products and businesses Australia-wide see

5. Practice safer renovation techniques

MethodsIt is very important regardless of what products and materials you are using, to practice safer renovation techniques - especially if you are living in the building that you are renovating.

Always read the label, wear the specified protective clothing and follow instructions for use and disposal.  As a general rule babies and children should be kept away from renovations as they are at greater risk of exposure to chemicals and dust. Pregnant and breast-feeding women should also be cautious.

Safer renovation tips:

  • Assess the materials already in the building to ensure you are aware of potential risks such as asbestos, lead-contaminated paint or dust and CCA treated timbers.
  • Close off the section under renovation if you are living in the building during renovations.
  • Ensure there is plenty of ventilation during the use of any products and for a period of time before you re-occupy a new renovation.
  • Leave new furniture or building materials with strong chemical odours outside under cover to air before bringing them indoors.
  • Use indoor plants during and after renovations which will help to quickly and effectively reduce any airborne chemicals.

For information on lead hazards and lead testing contact the Global Lead Advice and Support Service

For information on the effectiveness of indoor plants removing chemicals from the air see Plants Clean Air.

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