If you are like me, you have a touch of nostalgia for things of the past, things like the Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, old television sitcoms or movies of our youth. However, when you go back and look at that TV program, Saturday morning cartoon or old toy that you remember so fondly again on the internet, you realize that your memory had hidden the flaws of the show. You didn’t realize how bad the program or toy was compared to the standards of today.

Along those same lines, a movement in construction today is to rescue building materials from classic (old) structures and place them into new structures. But much like the old television programs, we forget about some of the hidden hazards and flaws associated with older and used building materials.

These forgotten or hidden hazards have been removed from current, new building materials linger on in these classic pieces. Hazards such as asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), lead, cadmium, mercury and formaldehyde, to name a few. While I am not advocating use of only new building materials, I am concerned that the industry may not be properly identifying the hazards during recovery or recognizing the liability of selling some of these items for reuse.


The hazards of asbestos are well known. Inhalation of fibers can cause asbestosis and lung cancer. Most also know that asbestos was widely used as insulation, fireproofing, floor tiles, roof tiles and water pipe—in fact, it was called the magic mineral. Many do not know that asbestos was used as a component of lightweight concrete decorative building accents, many of which are being salvaged and incorporated into new structures.

Asbestos also has been found in paints and caulking on many interior components such as windows and door frames. Old lighting fixtures and electrical components may contain asbestos-insulated wiring or transited panels. This asbestos can be removed and replaced with newer parts but should be done by properly trained and qualified individuals.

PCBs, another legacy item from our past, also is showing up in places besides electrical equipment. Much like the previous hazard discussed, PCBs are showing up in calks, paints and expansion joints. The difference is that PCBs also leach into building materials that they come in contact with, such as wood and masonry products, causing a much broader level of contaminated products. PCBs have found to be much more prevalent in the environment that previously thought.

Reused or salvaged materials should be screened for the presence of PCBs, especially if materials are going to be used in an interior application. Exposure to PCBs has been linked to increased rates of melanomas, liver cancer, gall bladder cancer, biliary tract cancer, gastrointestinal tract cancer, brain cancer and may be linked to breast cancer. PCBs are known to cause a variety of types of cancer in rats, mice and other study animals. They are considered a probable human carcinogen.

PCBs have very specific protocols for cleaning, reuse or disposal. Failure to follow these strict guidelines can cause a potential for legal consequences including fines or even jail time. All individuals involved in PCB cleanup and decontamination require specific training to complete this process.


Lead, cadmium and many other heavy metals were used as a common additive to paints to improve durability and provide bright distinctive pigments. The names of the colors often contained the now offending metal in their names like “red lead primer,” “zinc yellow,” “cobalt blue” and “cadmium yellow.” Vermillion pigments were often formed using mercury compounds.

Chrome VI or hexavalent chromium was used as an additive to primers. Many reuse enthusiasts are drawn to these patinas and finishes. Careful consideration and care should be taken as to the placement of these items in a new structure. These metals have been found to cause neurological disorders with long term exposure to children and older individuals as well as links to various types of cancers.

Careful stripping of the paint can preserve the pieces so they can be recoated or refinished and reused without fear of creating an unhealthy environment. There are many new pigments that have been developed and put on the market recently that imitate the classic colors.

Recovered laminated woods should also be looked at with great care as many of the glues and adhesives that were used in these laminates contained formaldehydes in the form of urea resins. Plywood, paneling and particle boards also contain formaldehyde resins. Persons are exposed to formaldehyde by breathing air containing off-gassed formaldehyde.

Everyone is exposed to small amounts of formaldehyde in the air that has off-gassed from products, including composite wood products. Older products however, have higher levels of this contaminate and are more prone to off gassing. Formaldehyde exposure can acutely cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat. High levels of both exposure as well as chronic exposure may cause some types of cancers.


Nostalgia and a strong desire for the preservation of the past has driven many aspects of the reused materials market. There is no question recovered building materials have many advantages—styles that no longer exist, hand crafted items that are too costly or lack the modern craftsman to produce them in the present and reduced costs to procure these used items.

The reduction of materials filling landfills in already overcrowded conditions and saving the natural resources of the planet is a large part of the current push toward a more sustainable business model. This new model must be balanced with the control and elimination of the health hazards associated with these reused products.

The new model will require the training of workers to recognize the hazards and providing the protective equipment needed to keep them safe. This also requires a rigorous testing of materials to identify unseen hazards that cannot be easily identified.

Materials will need to be decontaminated in order to be used safely in new environments and prevent the past hazards from endangering the health of a new generation. So go forth. Reuse, renew and preserve the past—but please do it safely.

Michael J. Casbon is a technical director for Environmental Resources Management (ERM), Indianapolis.