By: Sophie J. Balk, MD, FAAP
Living through a home renovation is difficult for adults, but add children, and expect a whole new level of challenges that require some extra thought about safety.
Most precautions are common sense. Children will be curious about new people and things in their home. It's important to keep them well-supervised, and out of the way of contractors and equipment. Pay attention as contractors go in and out, possibly leaving doors open, and giving your child a chance to slip outside.
Secure construction areas by locking doors or putting up physical barriers like plastic sheeting until work is complete. Also, give children some rules, such as not playing with leftover building materials. This will keep them safe from dangers like unattended power tools, uncovered electrical sockets, sharp edges and stray nails.
Other concerns might not be as apparent. Removing lead-based paint (found in homes built before 1978), or materials containing asbestos (possible in homes built before 1986) can be very hazardous to young children and others. New carpet can release chemical compounds. Construction dust can aggravate allergies and asthma.
Lead & asbestos concerns during home renovations
If your home needs lead or asbestos abatement, keep your child from entering the home while the removal takes place. If you're pregnant, you should also stay away from these hazards.
There are no safe levels of lead exposure. Even low levels of lead in the blood can affect a child's IQ, damage the brain and nervous system, slow growth and development, and cause problems with learning, behavior, hearing and speech. Children younger than six are most at risk. Unless testing shows otherwise, assume paint in older homes contains lead.
Under Federal law, any contractor who will disturb a painted surface in a home, childcare center or school built before 1978 must be certified and follow certain work practices to make sure there is no lead contamination. Always ask to see a contractor's certification. If you plan to do renovations yourself, call the National Lead Information Center at 1-800-424-LEAD (5323) to find out how to work safely and avoid contaminating your home. Children and pregnant women should not be in a home undergoing renovation and only return when the work is safely completed, and the home has been inspected and shown to be hazard-free with respect to lead.
Asbestos can be found in vinyl flooring, ceiling tiles, textured paint, coverings for hot water and steam pipes, and other materials. If it is in good condition, the material is safe. But asbestos fibers, which can be released into the air during remodeling, can cause cancer. A certified asbestos contractor should be hired to remove asbestos. More information can be found at https://www.cpsc.gov/safety-education/safety-guides/home/asbestos-home.
Volatile organic compounds
A child's runny nose could be caused by a new carpet. Besides nose, eye, and throat irritation, people have reported headaches, shortness of breath and feeling tired after a new carpet was installed. These symptoms may be caused by volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – chemicals that are released from the carpet.
Consider buying carpets, padding, and other materials that emit lower amounts of VOCs. Retailers can provide information about those products. While installers should air out carpets ahead of time, homeowners can open windows and doors to help. If you suspect your child has symptoms caused by a new carpet, have them play and sleep in another room to see if they improve. If not, a doctor visit may be in order.
It is also a good idea to avoid chemicals intended to make carpets, furnishings or bedding stain-resistant or fire-resistant. These chemicals do not work well and can cause long-term health problems. As you shop for new carpeting, for example, look for options that don't list these features.
Construction dust & noise
Expect dust during remodeling. Be sure to clean well during and after projects to help prevent construction dust from irritating allergies and asthma. Mopping with a wet mop is best. Don't forget to clean vents, vent covers, duct work and radiators. Also, pay attention to construction at neighbors' homes or elsewhere that could impact your child's safety.
Construction projects can be noisy. Excessive noise can damage hearing. Pay attention to noise created by renovation activities and keep children away from excessive noise exposure whenever possible.
Energy upgrades that are healthy for the environment
Finally, think about energy use. Switch out traditional bulbs with LED bulbs that last much longer and use up to 90% less energy. Consider installing motion detectors on light switches so that lights turn off when you leave a room. These and other energy-conscious steps will save money and can also help address climate change, which affects children's health in many ways.
Don't hesitate to talk with your pediatrician if you have any questions or concerns about keeping your child safe and healthy.
About Dr. Balk
Sophie J. Balk, MD, FAAP, a general pediatrician at the Children's Hospital at Montefiore in Bronx NY, is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Executive Committee of the Council on Environmental Health and Climate Change. Dr. Balk is Associate Editor of Pediatric Environmental Health, 4th Edition, the AAP handbook for pediatricians.