Weatherizing Right

With the subfreezing temperatures here in DC, the cold spots and drafts around my apartment are constant reminders to do the weatherizing projects I put off in the late fall. My procrastination has paid off in one sense – since joining EPA two months ago, I’ve learned a lot about keeping a home healthy while weatherizing or renovating.

This weekend I installed some plastic sheeting or film over a couple of old, single-pane windows in my apartment. It’s a short-term fix which should cut down on heat loss and make our rooms a bit more comfortable. As long as there is still some ventilation or outdoor air exchange elsewhere in my unit, it shouldn’t raise any health concerns.

I’ve also got a tube of caulking that I’m planning on using for the edges of a few windows that I don’t want to use the plastic around. Caulk is pretty easy to use, but proper ventilation is important during installation since some caulks may contain toluene or other potentially harmful chemicals. I’m planning on setting up a fan and opening one of the windows I haven’t weatherized yet in order to tackle this project.

If you’ve been looking to fill a larger crack or hole, you’ve reached for a can of spray foam sealer at your local hardware store. I used a can in my last house because it provides great insulation for cracks and crevices. At the same time, spray foams pose a health hazard if not used with proper personal protection (respirators and gloves) and work site ventilation. Spray polyurethane foams contain diisocyanates, which are potent lung and skin sensitizers (or allergens) and irritants. Click here to link to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s resource page or check out a presentation from EPA’s Green Building experts.

I’m not planning on ripping out any windows or otherwise disturbing the old paint in my apartment, since I don’t own the unit. My building was built around 1930, well before 1978, so if I did attempt larger modifications, it would be very important to avoid spreading lead. Come April, all contractors working in pre-1978 houses will be required by EPA to use lead-safe work practices. Here are three basic steps to lead-safe renovations: contain the work area to capture dust and debris, minimize dust, and clean up thoroughly.

About the author: Matthew H. Davis, M.P.H., is a Health Scientist in EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, working there on science and regulatory policy as a Presidential Management Fellow since October 2009. Previously, he worked in the environmental advocacy arena, founding a non-profit organization in Maine and overseeing the work of non-profits in four other states.