Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Handling Adaptive Reuse

Mt. Vernon Mill, Baltimore, MD
Hazardous Materials In Older Buildings
With the increasing popularity of adaptive reuse and historic preservation projects, we find ourselves working in older buildings more often. These projects are environmentally friendly by cutting down on the amount of demolition and construction waste ending up in landfills. But we need to be mindful of the hazardous materials we may encounter in older buildings. Many of the products and building materials commonly used decades ago are now considered hazardous materials. 

One of the most widely used hazardous materials was asbestos. Asbestos was a miracle fiber that added properties of strength, fire resistance, corrosion resistance, and heat, noise and electrical insulation to any product it was added to. It’s no wonder it was added to literally thousands of different building materials including pipe insulation and spray-on fire proofing. It was even used as fake snow on Hollywood movie sets. Unfortunately, we now know that when fibers of asbestos become airborne, they can cause serious lung diseases including lung cancer. The removal of asbestos-containing materials is heavily regulated by OSHA and the EPA and should only be done by properly qualified employees.

These projects are environmentally friendly by cutting down on the amount of demolition and construction waste ending up in andfills. But we need to be mindful of the hazardous materials we may encounter in older buildings.

Many old buildings from before 1978 also contain leadbased paint. Lead dust from demolition, or fumes from burning, can cause lead poisoning. Employees can inhale the dust or fume, or it can be ingested indirectly if good hygiene practices are not followed. Lead can accumulate in a person’s body and cause neurological, digestive and/or reproductive problems. Children are especially susceptible to lead poisoning. Work practices in child-occupied facilities such as schools, childcare centers, or apartment buildings are strictly spelled out by the EPA. Mercury is another hazardous material that can be found in older buildings. Mercury is used in fluorescent and HID lights, thermostats, and switches. Mercury is a metal that is liquid at room temperatures and can evaporate into the air when spilled, or when equipment is damaged. Mercury exposure can cause symptoms ranging from tremors and mood changes, to brain damage. In the nineteenth century, hat-makers used mercury when making felt hats and often suffered from mercury poisoning – hence the phrase “mad as a hatter.” 

Polychlorinated biphenyls are another example of a commonly used material that is now considered hazardous. Better known as PCBs, they were used in electric transformers and light ballasts as an electric insulator and coolant. PCBs can cause skin disorders and are believed to be carcinogenic. If a light ballast is not labeled as “No PCBs” you should assume it is hazardous and should be disposed of properly. Oils in electrical equipment can be tested and disposed of by an environmental remediation contractor. These are just a few examples of the hazardous materials that may be encountered in older buildings. The list doesn't even include the old batteries, cleaners, oils, and pesticides that may be left over in the building.

Older buildings may be full of hazardous materials, but with proper work practices and disposal, they can be handled in a safe, healthy, and environmentally responsible manner.

For any help or questions regarding hazardous materials, please contact John Kotchish, Safety Division Manager, jkotchish@rkinsley.com or (717) 741-8333.