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Deconstruction vs. Demolition: Portland, Oregon’s Potential for Groundbreaking Health and Safety Studies in Building Demolition – By Sara Badiali


Deconstruction vs. Demolition: Portland, Oregon’s Potential for Groundbreaking Health and Safety Studies in Building Demolition – By Sara Badiali

Demolition: deliberate destruction of a building or other structure.[1]

Deconstruction: the systematic dismantling of a building in order to recover the maximum amount of materials for reuse and recycling.[2]


The City of Portland is poised to contribute to the study of health and safety in building removal. The Deconstruction Ordinance will take effect starting October 2016. The ordinance outlines single family homes built before 1916 must be deconstructed for material reuse.  Deconstructing buildings will greatly lower greenhouse gas emissions and material disposal in landfills over traditional demolition.  Deconstruction not only provides access to unique materials but also viable building materials that would otherwise go to waste. The Deconstruction Ordinance will provide the first ever opportunity for side by side comparisons of demolition verses building deconstruction for environmental health and safety measures.

Portland presents an environment of blistering-fast paced development, houses upwards of one-hundred years old, and established demolition and deconstruction companies. Residential interest in environmental health and safety is at an all-time high due to incidents pertaining to lead and radon, and unprecedented housing demolition. Portland is also home to multiple academic organizations specializing in environmental health issues, health sciences, urban planning, and architecture.

By hosting studies of building removals, new information will lead to a better understanding of hazardous material reductions and ultimately best practices. Consequently research in Portland could be the catalyst for laws regulating more than standards for lead dust fall, but also heavy metals, asbestos, and water contamination in demolition practices.


Hazardous Particulates in Buildings

When a building is demolished, the mechanical action of crushing creates particulates of dust from the building’s materials. These particulates enter the air and spread throughout the environment.  Machines repeatedly driving over the worksite further circulate these particulates. Atmospheric conditions like wind can exacerbate the spread of dust.

There are currently no U.S. federal regulatory standards for lead dust fall, exterior settled dust, or dust-suppression methods in housing demolition.[3] There are also very few demolition dust fall related studies, or inquiries into whether hand dismantling structures (deconstruction) reduces the spread of potentially hazardous air particulates.

Lead and asbestos are by far the most studied and discussed of hazardous materials attributed to buildings. Asbestos is proven to cause the fatal diseases asbestosis, pleural disease, and lung cancer. According to a 2011 survey by U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control, over 37 million homes have lead based paint somewhere in the building. [4] The majority of hazardous lead is in homes built before 1978.

One study indicates that 37 billion square feet of building components are coated with deteriorated lead-based paint.[5] A 2008 study of lead exposures in U.S. children found that “Exposure to lead can occur from many pathways and sources, but housing is the main pathway of exposure in the U.S., accounting for approximately 70% of childhood lead poisoning cases.”[6]

There are other less well known potential health hazards in buildings.  Arsenic and heavy metals like chromium, copper, iron, and manganese are harmful to humans. These heavy metals are thought to be from use of pressure treated wood manufactured before 2003.  Mercury is a common toxic waste present in buildings, including gas pressure regulators, boiler heating systems, and thermostats. According to the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority “The amount of mercury present in one mercury thermometer is enough to pollute 5 million gallons of water.”[7] That is the capacity to contaminate a 20-acre lake with enough mercury to result in a fish consumption warning, says Wastecap of Massachusetts. Benzene, a chemical related to natural gas, is also found harmful to humans. Environmental dust is especially problematic for people who suffer from asthma.

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