Environmental and Human Costs of Demolition
Any kind of renovation work on your home will have an environmental impact. Having said that, the magnitude of demolition and construction work and the manner in which it is done can at least help to reduce that impact. Current practices in the U.S. are generally wasteful and inefficient—for the first time in history we have had a surplus of cheap, raw materials and an abundance of landfill space, and this has led to irresponsible disposal practices. It is estimated that it is now “not uncommon for 150 millions tons [of building debris], not including the millions of tons coming from road, bridge, and airport construction and renovation” to be generated annually in the U.S. (John S. Manuel, “Unbuilding for the Environment,” Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 111, No. 16 (Dec. 2003): A881.) Oh, but there’s more…
Dust and Hazards to Homeowners, Workers and Neighbors
Another consequence of a major renovation is the release of toxins via demolition work. Demolition is a dirty business. The “pardon our dust” signs seem to mock the amount of crushed plaster, wood, masonry and metal that sits in massive piles behind the thin barrier of plastic surrounding a site…if there is any plastic. If materials are friable—meaning they can crumble under pressure—dust particles are freed and can be easily inhaled during construction and demolition, posing health risks to the homeowner, construction workers, and anyone else on or near the site. Asbestos fibers are small and light and can stay in the air for long periods of time if released, increasing the risk of inhalation. Even the families of construction workers can inhale asbestos fibers released by clothes that have been in contact with asbestos containing materials (ACMs), and those who live or work near asbestos-related operations may inhale fibers that have been released into the air through construction (called neighborhood exposure). (see http://www.epa.gov/earth1r6/6pd/asbestos/asbgenl.htm)
State laws vary in terms of what lengths a contractor must go to before demolition. Many do not require residential buildings that have four or fewer dwelling units to be inspected by an asbestos inspector prior to demolition or renovation, so if you are renovating or are specifically interested in removing ACMs from your home, be sure to hire an inspector and take the necessary precautions to reduce the risks of inhalation.
Of course, asbestos is only one toxic aspect of construction and demolition. Inhaling “dust particles, sand and crystalline silica can lead to lung cancer, tuberculosis, and silicosis.” Demolition of any kind is a dangerous business, which is one more reason that maintaining the existing fabric of your home and using what already exists is usually the safest route for any homeowner.
Reducing the amount of C&D work on your home will also help prevent noise and dust pollution, which can disrupt the harmony of a neighborhood and actually make people sick. Also keep in mind that large amounts of energy are used to demolish a structure—even if only in part. Precious materials such as old growth wood, quarried stone, various metals and remnants of dying arts are smashed and dumped. And once it’s gone, it’s gone.