Working for Individuals with Chemical and Dust Sensitivities
by Alex Merrill
If a caricature artist were to illustrate the construction industry, bottom line/speed/get the job done mentality would certainly be the most prominent feature, like a crooked nose on Owen Wilson (sorry, Owen). This order of priorities leaves critical aspects of construction such as cleanliness of the job site, presence of harmful chemicals, and production of dust far on the back burner. Whether you’re working for a client with sensitivities to common building practices, or you’re doing a project of your own and want to build healthily for your family, it is worthwhile to know what products you’re using and how you are using them.
There are no two ways about it, there are some funky-butt chemicals used all the time in construction. Many adhesives, caulks, paints, and glues in composite products are all stinky stuffs. Some people suffer from oppressive reactions against these more noxious compounds, so certain measures need to be taken for their care and comfort.
The industry has in one sense become increasingly aware of this issue, and now requires most products to include their percentage or ratio of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Low or no VOC products contain fewer volatile compounds, and therefore “off-gas” less, stink less, and are less likely to cause a chemically-sensitive person discomfort or harm. They can be more difficult to find, and often come with a marginal price increase, but that’s just a pill you have to swallow in the pursuit of (sensitive) craftsmanship. Two brands of adhesives and sealants that I know to be good are ChemLink and EcoBond. Consider water-based finishes for wood as opposed to oil-based products. Look for paints without VOCs; latex paints, which clean up with water and dish soap, are as a rule less “stinky” than oil and alkyd paints. Plywood (which is actually just thin layers, or ‘plys’, of wood glued together) usually has less offensive glue than OSB (Oriented Strand Board, or the stuff that is a bunch of little wood strips all glued together). Plywood is more expensive, but it’s a good idea to use it when possible for the glue and also for the durability. OSB soaks up water and expands easily, and it’s surface can begin to weaken and chunk out if it sees too much traffic before being covered. We’ll call that enough on the chemical front for a cursory look.
It is true that many building practices inevitably produce dust of varying kinds and quantities. Sawing, grinding, spraying, sweeping, etc. It’s also no secret that exposure to airborne dust and fine particles is not great for the respiratory system. So, when you’re building, minimize the likelihood of respiratory issues as much as possible by being vigilant about dust production. While specific conditions will determine the best way to mitigate and control dust for a given situation, here are some good rules of thumb.
Before you raise your hammer or turn on your saw, let the first thing you construct be a good dust barrier around your workspace if you’re forced to cut inside. I recently worked on an addition where I was literally in the family’s living room and dining room on the daily daily, banging and clanging and thumping feet away from their living space. What kept them from being inundated with dust and debris is the floor-to-ceiling, continuous plastic curtain wall erected between the work area and the living area. Good supplies to have for this are Third Hand extendable poles, good 4-mil or 6-mil sheet plastic, blue painter’s tape (or even better, Frog Tape), and zipper doors. These zipper doors have adhesive backing that sticks to the plastic, and you simply cut out the plastic between the zipper. These make going back and forth through the temporary doorway in the plastic wall more comfortable, they are more durable than plastic flap doors, and perhaps most importantly they do a much more effective job in preventing air movement (and therefore dust flow) between spaces. Always remember, airflow created by differences in air pressure is the thing most likely to carry dust from the work area into any area you want to keep clean. Sealing around edges and always double checking for any weak points will ensure a properly functioning barrier wall. Perhaps we put the cart before the proverbial horse.
We’ve just discussed a method of dust containment between spaces, let’s now look into mitigating dust creation at the source. Whenever you perform a task that will inevitably produce dust, first consider what a good way might be to knock the dust down or capture it before it can fly itself into the surrounding environment. Wetting concrete before and during your work produces a mucky puddle instead of a harmful cloud of silica particles. Hooking up a HEPA vac to your saw when you cut fiber cement products like Hardie brand siding will capture most of the harmful silica dust produced during those cuts. Using mechanical systems of breaking and cutting (like Hardie shears for example), where possible, is always a smart dust prevention solution. While most wood saw dust isn’t as dangerous to health as the fine dust generated with concrete, a vacuum system is never a bad idea, especially for anyone with asthma or other sensitivity to dust.