Home weatherization and energy efficiency strategies can make your home a healthier place to live by increasing comfort, improving air quality, reducing moisture that can lead to mold growth, and saving you money on energy bills. Not only can weatherization help keep your home warmer in winter, it actually also helps keep it cooler in summer! You can learn more about these benefits from the Health Department’s Weatherization + Health in Vermont fact sheet.
There are a number of potential health and safety issues to be aware of before you begin your energy upgrades, which can be addressed with proper planning.
Potential health and safety issues may include:
- Reducing air flow to the point that it can compromise indoor air quality
- Trapping moisture in areas that may encourage mold growth
- Disturbing lead paint
- Stirring up asbestos fibers that may be in your home or workplace
- Short-term off-gassing of certain materials
- The need to use appropriate personal protective equipment when performing energy upgrades
- Back drafting
- Carbon monoxide
Professionals such as qualified energy auditors can assess your building, identify opportunities and issues, help you make improvements, and verify afterwards that there are no health and safety issues related to the work. More information about hiring a contractor can be found on the Using a Contractor and Tools & Resources pages.
Air Flow and Ventilation
Sealing air leaks and adding insulation can be very effective ways to achieve energy savings. However, it is important to have enough air circulating in your building to maintain a healthy indoor environment. In many cases, this is accomplished by adding built-in exhaust fans or other mechanical ventilation. Proper airflow is very important, especially during the heating season. Stoves and heating systems need enough air to burn efficiently. If this supply is cut short, smoke and flue gasses may begin back drafting into the building, instead of exiting through a vent or chimney. There can also be issues that develop if the moisture from cooking, showers, and other activities is not exhausted sufficiently.
It may seem counter-intuitive to tighten up your building and also spend money to add proper ventilation. However, there may be good reasons to make these changes. Relying on cracks and leaks to let air in for ventilation can cause problems. During cold or windy weather, too much air may enter the building, which can create cold drafts and can increase your heating bill. When it's warmer and less windy, enough air may not come in, which can result in stagnant conditions and poor indoor air quality.
There are several types of ventilation systems, including ones that pre-heat incoming air with the warm air you are exhausting. Some examples are included at the Energy.gov ventilation webpage.
Poor air circulation can also contribute to moisture problems that can affect building occupants’ health and the structure’s durability. Bathrooms, closets, laundry rooms and other areas without proper ventilation are all prone to developing mold. Moisture can also occur from leaking roofs, storing firewood in the basement, and inadequate dryer vents. The best way to control mold growth is to limit sources of indoor moisture and install fans and other means to control the air flow. Potential health effects and symptoms associated with mold exposure can include allergic reactions, asthma and other respiratory issues.
More information about mold can be found at the EPA mold webpage.
If your building was constructed before 1978 (when federal regulations restricted the use of lead in household paint), lead paint may be present on walls, doors, windows, and sills. Lead is a toxic metal that can cause serious health issues if ingested or inhaled. Renovation, repair or painting activities can create toxic lead dust when painted surfaces are disturbed or demolished. It is important to determine if there is lead paint present before beginning your energy improvements.
More information about lead paint can be found at the EPA lead webpage.
Asbestos and Vermiculite
Asbestos was widely used in building materials until 1980 and is found in some Vermont homes and commercial buildings. Breathing in asbestos fibers that may be released from renovation projects will increase your risk of lung disease.
Asbestos can be in:
- Walls and floors around wood-burning stoves protected with asbestos paper, millboard, or cement sheets
- Hot water and steam pipes coated with asbestos material or covered with an asbestos blanket or tape
- Oil and coal furnaces and door gaskets with asbestos insulation
Asbestos sometimes mixed with vermiculite in a popular insulation material with the brand name of Zonolite that was once used in Vermont and across the U.S. If you have vermiculite insulation in your building, you should assume this material contains asbestos and it should only be removed by a professional asbestos contractor. Some funding may be available to assist with vermiculite removal.
Carbon Monoxide & Off Gassing
Carbon monoxide and air pollutants from cleaning products, paints, glues, combustion appliances, and other household chemicals can build up without proper ventilation, creating an unhealthy and even dangerous indoor environment.
Issues with carbon monoxide typically stem from:
- A heating system or hot water system tune-up being incorrectly performed
- Tightening up a building without ensuring there is enough ventilation to avoid back drafting
- Running internal combustion engines where the exhaust gets inside the building
An adequate number of properly maintained carbon monoxide detectors (available at hardware and other home supply businesses) are recommended for every home and commercial building.
Spray polyurethane foam should always be installed by a qualified professional, as spray foam releases toxic chemicals during and immediately after installation, especially if installed improperly. These chemicals can cause skin, eye, and lung irritation. During and for 24-72 hours following installation, the worksite should be restricted to persons wearing appropriate personal protective equipment. Talk to your contractor about how long you will need to stay out of the home. After spray foam has been properly installed and cured, and the home ventilated, continued exposure to toxic chemicals from spray foam is unlikely.
Other materials that may be used in home energy projects can also release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) after installation or application, including flooring, paint, and adhesives. These chemicals can cause ear, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, and nerve problems. Always check and follow manufacturer’s instructions for proper installation, use of personal protective equipment, and ventilation.
More information can be found at the following EPA links on air quality:
- Carbon Monoxide Impact on Indoor Air Quality
- Volatile Organic Compounds' Impact on Indoor Air Quality
- Spray Polyurethane Foam Insulation
Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas that forms naturally when radioactive elements (such as uranium) decay. Radon gas given off by soil or rock can enter buildings through cracks in floors or walls, construction joints, or gaps in foundations around pipes, wires or pumps. It is present throughout the United States, including Vermont.
Radon gas breaks down into tiny radioactive elements that can lodge in the lining of the lungs, where they can give off radiation. This radiation can damage lung cells and eventually lead to lung cancer. You can check radon levels in your building with a detection kit. See the Health Vermont radon and EPA radon webpages for more information regarding radon levels.
When planning your energy improvements, it is important to remember:
- Addressing health and safety problems before you do energy upgrades can prevent health issues from occurring, as well as save time and money
- Proper ventilation can make your building more comfortable and provide a healthier living environment
- Ignoring health and safety issues can be hazardous to your health and will not make them disappear
- Materials like lead paint and asbestos were once common in construction and insulation, but have since been banned from use due to health hazards. Funding may be available to assist with the proper removal of materials like asbestos. (For more information, please see the Learn More section below, as well as the Financing webpage.)
Some Next Steps
If you suspect there are safety or health issues in your building (such as lead paint, mold or asbestos), you should talk with a professional about the best way to address or remove these problems. (See Using a Contractor webpage for more information.) A qualified energy contractor can help with this in your business or home and an energy analysis can also inspect your heating equipment to make sure it is functioning properly and not adding carbon monoxide or other pollutants to your indoor air.
There are times when health and safety concerns should be addressed along with your efficiency improvements. In addition to the information in this section, you will find related information throughout this site, including the Programs & Incentives and Tools & Resources pages. There are a number of resources which offer technical and financial assistance to help with problems such as asbestos removal, indoor air quality, and excess moisture. Many of the financing options that are in place may allow you to include these repairs. Programs and financing may also be available to help properly remove lead paint and other hazardous materials before you begin your upgrades, including:
- In Vermont, W. R. Grace funds the Zonolite Attic Insulation Trust, which provides reimbursement for asbestos abatement costs of eligible claimants.
- The Vermont Healthy Homes Program addresses mold, lead, allergens, asthma, carbon monoxide, home safety, pesticides, and radon. It is run by the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB). VHCB provides free technical assistance and financial assistance to property owners to reduce hazards from lead-based paint, including lead paint testing, risk assessment, specification development, bidding and contractor selection assistance, construction management, clearance testing, and follow-up inspections. See the VHCB webpage for details.
- The Burlington Lead Program (Office of Community and Economic Development - CEDO) offers resources for residents of Burlington and Winooski interested in learning about addressing lead in their properties.
- Vermont Department of Health: More information is also available at the Vermont Department of Health's webpage, including information about healthy homes, radon laboratory testing, lead and asbestos and lead related services.
- Residential rental properties in Vermont are subject to minimum health and habitability standards under the Rental Housing Health Code. If you’re making energy upgrades to a building that is, or will be, used for residential rental purposes, you should ensure that any changes you make are compliant with the requirements in that regulation. The purpose of the Rental Housing Health code is to protect the health, safety and well-being of the occupants of rental housing and includes requirements concerning heating facilities, ventilation, and mold, among others.