It took freelance film editor Sharon Zupancic and her husband a while to decide how they wanted to renovate their west-end Toronto home. During the year-long reno, she and her family lived on the ground floor for months while the upstairs was being remodelled. But because she became pregnant with the couple’s second child during the project and she already had a three-year-old son running around, the renovation had to be as safe as possible.

That meant sealing off the upstairs completely to prevent dust and fumes from wafting downstairs. “We basically blocked the upstairs off completely with plastic,” says Zupancic. “And we moved out for the weekend when they were sanding.”

She and her husband also chose to do the bulk of the work in the summer months, when windows can be opened and messy jobs can be done outdoors.

“I made sure [the contractors] cut all the wood outdoors,” says Zupancic. “When you’re doing a reno, it helps to do as much as possible outside.”

Take steps to be safe

Home renovation projects can open up a can of worms when it comes to health hazards. First there is the dust from sanding, drywall, insulation and plaster – which can irritate the airways of people with lung conditions such as asthma. Flooring, too, raises health issues. According to Connie Wong, Air Quality Co-ordinator at the Ontario Lung Association in Toronto, “removing carpet can release large amounts of particles that can be breathed into the lungs, while installing flooring may include the use of strong glues and adhesives that may off-gas – creating fumes that may cause dizziness, fatigue and nausea.”

House paints also contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), organic chemicals that are emitted as gases and cause fatigue, headaches, nausea and skin and lung irritation. And paint thinners, strippers and varnishes all contain solvents that can lead to lung and skin irritation, headaches and dizziness.

Needless to say, avoiding these types of irritants is a good idea, especially if you have children at home.

Here’s how to have a safe reno:

  • 1. Obtain the necessary permits and ensure your contractors are licensed by safety authorities in your province, says the B.C. Safety Authority.
  • 2. Protect yourself. “A properly fitted mask, gloves and eye protection can shield you from irritants during home projects,” says Wong.
  • 3. Let in some fresh air. Ensure work is done in a well-ventilated area by opening windows and turning on fans to limit irritants or fumes. Working in the summer makes this a lot easier.
  • 4. Go green. Choose paints, thinners, varnishes and cleaners that are as eco-friendly as possible. That means selecting VOC-free paints, products that are labelled “green” and water-based thinners over those containing solvents. Find more examples in the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s fact sheets.
  • 5. Do messy jobs outside when possible – on a driveway, in the backyard or on a balcony – and provide a mat for wiping feet. That cuts back on the toxic substances that can be tracked into the home.
  • 6. Move out during the certain projects. If you’re sanding, stripping, painting or varnishing, get the family out as much as possible to avoid breathing in fumes, suggests Zupancic.
  • 7. Get professional help with certain materials. If you come across a substance you suspect is dangerous, such as asbestos or mould, call in a remediation team with expertise in removing dangerous substances.

Zupancic also recommends watching closely over any contractors you hire. If you’re keen on containing a mess, be explicit in your requests to seal off the work area, install fans or put down tarps. And then pay attention, even if that means taking off a few hours of work at the beginning of a project.

“You have to babysit people – even the most experienced,” says Zupancic, adding she had the benefit of being home to observe her contractors. “If I hadn’t been home to say: ‘Put the plastic down,’ there wouldn’t have been any.”