Bill of Health after Renovation

Case Study 2 – Clean “Bill of Health” after Home Renovation in Pudong Area Villa

M moved to Shanghai from Switzerland with her husband and three children in January of 2011. And as we sat together to talk I could feel her long for the clean and unpolluted air of the Alps…

Shortly after moving into their house, a spacious villa in Pudong, her son called her to look at some worms that were coming out of small holes in the wood panels – termites were invading her new home! M recalls being very happy her furniture shipment had not arrived to Shanghai… She called management to have a look and they told her that they would need to spray. M wasn’t sure what it was they wanted to spray and was very concerned of the safety of the chemicals they would use. She didn’t agree to this and asked them to find another solution. The management glued the holes but just a few days later M and her family started discovering termites all around the house. Although termites don’t pose  a health hazard to human health the use of toxic pesticides to eradicate them can be detrimental to health.

At this point the only solution was to rip out all the wooding and renovate while M moved temporarily into another house. M insisted that she didn’t want the workers to spray insecticides in her home at any point during the renovations, and the management assured her that they wouldn’t.  So, she was shocked to discover during an unannounced  visit to the renovation site in her home that workers were in fact spraying. M told management she wouldn’t move back in before she was sure her indoor air quality was safe.

M contacted PureLiving to investigate.  Louie Cheng, founder of the Shanghai-based indoor environmental testing and consulting firm, researched Termidor, the pesticide used by the workers and discovered that whereas it was fairly ‘safe’ and inert it was still important to test the air and water to see if it was impacted by spraying.

The findings showed that the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) exceeded  the Chinese national health standard by nearly 400% and the US EPA’s standard by over 1000%.   Toluene, a chemical emission that is linked to kidney and liver damage, was also 250% higher.  Cheng attributed this to the paint used during renovations – “In China, the frequency of renovations means that low-emissions or “green” building materials are not widely used.” Since this is a very common occurrence post-renovation, especially if materials are not carefully chosen, living in a building with these levels of chemicals can lead to a range of health damage.. VOC’s can cause a range of neurological symptoms (headaches, fatigue, and nausea), eye and respiratory tract irritation. Long-term exposure to some VOCs is linked with liver and kidney dysfunctions as well as damage to the central nervous system.  Fortunately, there are solutions such as ventilating with industrial fans,  as well as treating rooms with Titanium Dioxide, which chemically reduces VOCs to harmless carbon dioxide.

PureLiving’s tests also  revealed that airborne lead was about 2.5 times that of the EPA safety standards (reflecting the low level of awareness of lead hazards, China does not have residential airborne lead standards and virtually no Chinese test companies know how to test for this). Lead exposure is linked with delays in growth, hyperactivity, impaired hearing, sterility and brain retardation. Children below the age of 6 are most at risk and the effects are irreversible but preventable.  “Lead can be generated through a number of sources within the home – smoking, burning certain candles, and tracking contaminated dirt into the home,” Louie explains.  “Shanghai air is already high in lead due to continued use of some leaded fuels, industrial processes, and the large amounts of coal burning.”  To treat the problem at home, Louie recommended using HEPA air filters to capture airborne lead, reducing external ventilation and HEPA vacuuming to capture settled lead dust.  In addition, he recommended that M test the blood lead level of her young children at the hospital to monitor exposure.

The assessment conducted by PL also determined that levels of particulate matter (PM) were nearly five times the EPA standards! PM can cause respiratory disease and infection and is correlated with diabetes and obesity in animals. Chronic exposure is linked to lung cancer and is a contributor to heart attacks and strokes by increasing blood pressure.  “Most particulates come from the outdoor air when we open doors and windows,” explained Louie, “ and since levels peak during the morning and late at night, it is better to avoid ventilating or doing strenuous outdoor activity during those times.” HEPA air filters  are also good options to reduce the presence of indoor PM.  PL recommends setting the filters on high for 30 minutes after ventilation.

Last but not least, the relative humidity exceeded guidelines for a healthy home.  . High levels of humidity can encourage the growth of mold, bacteria and mites,  all of which are allergens that can trigger asthma attacks or lead to the development of other allergies. Levels of humidity can be reduced by the use of air-conditioning and by running the exhaust fan when showering or cooking.  If you have floor heating, consider buying a dehumidifier that can remove 15-20L per day per large 30m2 room. The levels of humidity can be monitored by the use of a hygrometer, a device that PureLiving provided to M after testing.

Although the test results were alarming, M recalls that the PureLiving team was careful to reassure her that there were solutions and put the levels into context.  “Louie sent us a fair amount of scientific research to help us understand that toluene was not as dangerous as some of the other pollutants like formaldehyde or benzene.”  Also, during the face-to-face debrief, he prioritized the issues and laid out options to resolve each of them.  Some of the options cost nothing, while other ones, like treating the home with oxidizing reagents, would work quickly but cost money.  Eventually, the building management and M agreed to a PureLiving-recommended method of ventilation that used industrial fans, chemical-reducing indoor plants, air conditioning, and air purifiers.

After a one-week period, the PureLiving team returned to conduct a retest.  The results were dramatic:  the concentration of VOCs fell by an average of over 70% and toluene dropped over 95%.  “The retesting gave us the confidence to move back in with peace of mind that the problems had been resolved,” said M.

M feels happier and more at home here in Shanghai now that she’s taken actions  to make her house safer for her family. “I knew that living here meant that I would have to tolerate a certain level of uncertainty about health and safety,” she says “but both my husband and I had terminal cancer in our families and we intend to do everything in our power to protect our family.”