October 10, 2018

Then and Now: How Building Materials Have Changed for the Better

Building materials used 20+ years ago were not as safe as they are today. If you are planning on renovating an older home, it's important to understand how to do it safely.

If you were to take a glimpse into your childhood home during the 1970s, you might see things like shag carpeting, wooden cabinetry, and funky colored walls. While this may have looked appealing at the time, home trends change and renovations are needed to keep up with the latest style. Changing this disco-era style to a modern-day look may sound like a simple task, but there could be hidden dangers lurking within these home updates. Some building materials were not as safe as they are today, and if you are planning on renovating an older home, it is important to understand how to do it safely.

New and safer alternatives to antiquated building materials are gaining popularity in the homebuilding space. Comparing popular building materials with updated building materials from today, streamlines the renovation process and allows you to renovate safely, providing a sustainable, toxin-free home for your family.


Vermiculite insulation was commonly used in homes prior to 1980. The mineral, vermiculite, is lightweight and fire-resistant, making it an appealing option for use in insulation. However, the vermiculite from that time period was mined from Libby, Montana and was contaminated with a deposit of naturally occurring asbestos. Asbestos is a deadly carcinogen that is known to cause serious health issues. The tainted vermiculite was used in homes all across the United States. Homeowners completing renovations may be unaware of the presence of this type of insulation in their home, potentially exposing themselves to asbestos.

Once asbestos is disturbed, the fibers become airborne, and they can be inhaled or ingested. These fibers then become embedded in the lining of the internal organs. As a result, the affected organs become inflamed, and over the next twenty to fifty years have the ability to develop into mesothelioma.

In addition to use in insulation, asbestos was used in roof shingles, flooring, and wall tiles. If your home was built during years of asbestos use, and you suspect that it may contain the carcinogen, have it tested as soon as possible in order to mitigate risk.

Paper insulation is a sustainable alternative to asbestos containing insulation. The insulation, otherwise known as cellulose insulation, is comprised of 85 percent recycled materials. Borate, which is non-toxic and fire-resistant, comprises the remaining 15 percent. Paper insulation consists mostly of shredded newspaper which eliminates large amounts of waste that would otherwise be thrown into landfills. Also, paper insulation is able to conform to very tight spaces making it suitable for an attic or basement.


Flooring used in kitchens and bathrooms of older homes is often vinyl. Vinyl flooring could have also been produced with asbestos and while flooring is less likely to deteriorate and create asbestos exposure, the outdated flooring still poses a potential health hazard. Dioxins are carcinogenic toxins that are produced during the manufacturing of vinyl products. They pose a threat to the health of both humans and the environment. High-level dioxin exposure has been known to cause skin irritability and even damage to the immune system.

Bamboo is a safer alternative to hazardous vinyl flooring. The material is sustainable, durable, grows in abundance, and regenerates quickly. Bamboo produces oxygen when harvested further mitigating risks created by deforestation. The hardwood alternative achieves the desired wood look without compromising environmental morales.


Lead paint was used widely across the United States before eventually being banned in 1978. While many homeowners have painted a layer of new paint over the potentially hazardous one, the lead underneath can be a threat. If this paint begins to chip, the lead paint chips are a serious concern to the developmental health of infants. Children are known to teethe on surfaces that could potentially contain lead paint, such as window sills. If your home is undergoing renovations, be sure to have existing paint tested for lead. Dust created as a result of sanding lead-containing paint can have serious effects on your health. Symptoms of lead exposure include eye irritation, and if prolonged exposure occurs, kidney damage.

Low-VOC or no-VOC paint is the safest option for us in the home. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs/) are toxic gases emitted from paint when in both the liquid and solid states. Using paint with little to no VOCs is important because exposure to VOCs may cause throat irritation and headaches. Ensure proper ventilation when painting, even if the paint has low-VOCs. These low-VOC paints are labeled, and can be found at almost every paint supply shop.


Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) pipes are used to store water and can be found in most homes. Many are unaware that these pipes contain phthalates, chemicals that enable plastic to have durable and flexible qualities. Phthalates have been shown to have a negative effect on reproductive health. If you have the ability to replace existing PVC piping, it should be strongly considered.

Copper piping is a safer alternative to PVC. Pipes have been made from copper for a long time, but the copper piping technology has vastly improved in recent years. Modern copper pipes are less likely to cause leaching into your water supply, and do not contain phthalates. The added expense of copper is a small price to pay to ensure you have a safe water supply.

Renovation Safety

When renovating, be sure to keep these green building alternatives in mind. As society moves towards more sustainable lifestyle practices, these green materials will gain ground in the construction industry. It is important that while renovating, you are not exposing yourself to these dangerous materials that contain potentially deadly toxins. Always use proper safety equipment, and if you have hesitations about completing a renovation project on your own, contact a professional for help.

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