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Best practices, resources help wipe out contaminants to keep buildings safe

October 26, 2021
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By Joe Lawniczak, Wisconsin Main Street

The potential for contaminants in the buildings where we live and work has always been a concern, whether it’s mold in our walls or foundations, lead in our paint or drinking water or asbestos in our insulation or floor tiles. This concern has become even more prominent during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many of us have been working from home and spending more time indoors.

Most people think older and historic buildings are more susceptible to these issues—but in fact, newer buildings often present their own health issues. Many new building materials such as carpeting, manufactured wood products, tile, adhesives and cleaners, give off volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can make people sick.

This issue is so common that experts have coined phrases, including “sick building syndrome” and “building-related illness,” to describe the condition. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has an informative guide on this topic.

Newer buildings are also more airtight, relying solely on HVAC units to provide fresh air. This prevents air flow into the structure—but in older buildings, increased air flow can actually help to dry out damp areas in walls, lessening mold build up. And the materials found in many older buildings, such as plaster, are more resistant to moisture than newer drywall, so mold and mildew are less apt to form.

Older buildings, however, may have mold from moisture in their basements or foundations, layers of old lead paint hidden in their walls and trim, lead pipes in their plumbing systems and asbestos in pipe insulation or old floor tiles.

Since most of the buildings in Main Street districts are older and historic buildings, this article focuses on this building type instead of newer construction.

Methods for abatement

Some methods for improving the health of indoor spaces can be simple. They include replacing furnace filters regularly, cleaning gutters and downspouts to prevent water infiltration, using screen windows to allow for fresh air and ventilation, using a dehumidifier for damp areas or even switching cleaners or air fresheners to ones with low VOCs.

But in more severe cases, or in the case of a renovation project that disturbs materials, removing (abating) the health hazard is required. Most often, due to the dangers of the contaminant itself, a professional is needed to do this abatement. This can obviously add time and cost to any renovation project or maintenance plan.


Mold is perhaps the most prevalent issue found in buildings, because it occurs naturally rather than being associated with an installed material. While we can never eliminate all mold from occurring, we can try to eliminate the source, which is water and moisture.

Moisture in buildings can come from inside or out, from rain or melting snow, from leaking pipes or unventilated showers. It can come from the ground up during flooding or it can come from the top down through faulty roofing, flashing, gutters or windows and sills.

Regardless of the source, the cause needs to be remedied before any mold cleanup is done. Here are some possible fixes:

  • If the source is a leaking or burst pipe, it should be repaired or replaced, which may require dismantling portions of walls or ceilings to access the pipes.
  • If it is from moisture near a shower, an exhaust vent may need to be added or replaced. This may require electrical work, carpentry and work on ducts and flashing in tight spaces.
  • If it’s from standing water in the basement, perhaps a sump pump and drain tile need to be installed, the foundation walls and floors need repair and maybe the slope around the building needs to be regraded.
  • If the moisture is coming from faulty windows or sills, it’s likely that caulking, reglazing or the addition of storm windows is required.
  • If it’s coming from the walls, check all gutters and downspouts, trim all vegetation away from the wall, repair and repaint all wood and repoint all masonry as needed.
  • If it’s coming from above, it may not be the roofing material itself, but rather leaks at the roof flashing around chimneys, vents, skylights or around the roof perimeter. It could also be from clogged roof drains.

Once these issues are fixed, eliminating mold may require the removal of areas of saturated materials such as drywall, ceiling tiles, carpeting or rotted wood. These materials retain moisture and cannot be dried easily. Other materials such as wood, metal and tile, if not rotted or rusted out, can often be cleaned, dried and left in place. If the affected area is 10 square feet or less, you can probably clean it yourself. If it’s larger, hiring a professional is recommended.

Cleaning mold (especially black mold) should be done while wearing rubber gloves, goggles and an N-95 respirator. Clean all moldy areas with water and either detergent, bleach, baking soda, hydrogen peroxide or white vinegar. Allow to dry completely, repeating again if any mold remains.

Lead paint

Another common building contaminant is lead paint. Until 1978, most household paints contained lead. Today, the state Department of Health Services (DHS) estimates that there are 350,000 homes in Wisconsin with lead paint hazards.

There are now regulations on who can do renovation work on certain buildings containing lead paint. These include “child-occupied facilities”­—daycares, preschools, or any other use where children under six years old spend at least two days per week—and “target housing,” most housing built before 1978. These regulations state that only certified contractors may do demolition, remodeling or renovation work on buildings fitting these descriptions if lead paint is detected.

One exception is if the housing units are all owner-occupied or rented by the immediate family of the owner. Another exception is if only minor repairs or maintenance are being done. This regulation is relevant for Main Street, since many downtown buildings have upper-floor residential and most were built before 1978.

Lead paint is common on anything painted, including existing windows, walls and ceilings.

For impacted properties where a renovation is planned, the paint must first be inspected by a certified contractor before work can be done. If more than one milligram of lead per square centimeter is found, then only certified contractors can do the renovation work.

New changes to the regulations were adopted in July 2021 . In general, they are similar in regard to requiring certified contractors.

In many cases, the lead paint exists several layers under newer paint coatings. If not disturbed, it can often remain encapsulated as is. But if any part of that wall, trim or window is to be demolished or the paint removed, then appropriate measures need to be taken by a certified contractor.


Asbestos was used, unregulated, until the 1970s in items such as floor tiles, roofing and insulation to give them strength and provide fire resistance. Later, it was discovered that these fibers can cause mesothelioma and lung cancer.

Contrary to popular belief, other than the spray-on form, the use of asbestos in consumer materials is not banned in the U.S., even though more than 50 other countries have banned it. It is still allowed to be used in hundreds of U.S.-made materials, as long as those products contain less than one percent asbestos. So, other than metal or wood, there is a good chance that many materials in a building contain some form of asbestos.

While it has not been banned yet—there were a few bills proposed between 2002 and 2008—it is highly regulated by the EPA and state agencies. Today, the removal of asbestos in construction or renovation must be done by certified professionals. It is illegal for property owners to knowingly remove, disturb or dispose of asbestos on their own.

As with lead paint, if certain asbestos-containing materials are encapsulated by other materials and are not being disturbed, they may be able to remain.

In Wisconsin, the state DHS is accredited by the EPA to provide this training and certification to contractors. Testing by a certified contractor can help to determine if asbestos is present and give a cost estimate.

Funding and other resources

Of course, taking these extra precautions and hiring certified contractors can significantly impact a project’s budget. Thankfully, there are financial resources available that might be able to help defray those costs.

Lead-Safe Homes Program

For lead paint abatement, the DHS provides the Lead-Safe Homes Program. For successful applicants, this program can pay 100% of the costs for single-family homes and 85% for rental properties. The funds can be used for a lead assessment before and after a renovation, as well as the costs related to the actual renovation work that involves lead paint abatement.

It’s important to note that vacant residential units are not eligible. It is available for homes built before 1978, occupied by children or pregnant women, where the occupants are below 301% of the federal poverty limit. Find more information on federal poverty thresholds and guidelines.

To be eligible, the property must also be current on all taxes and insured for complete loss.

Healthy Homes Demonstration Program

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has a grant available to local entities, but not individuals, for activities that remediate home health hazards such as mold, lead and asbestos. The program requires that 65% of the funding be used for direct abatement of these hazards. Nonprofits, such as Main Street organizations, may be eligible applicants, along with local housing authorities or municipal governments. Learn more.

Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control and Lead Hazard Reduction Demonstration Program

HUD also operates two lead paint–specific programs: one for urban cities and the other for urban, suburban or rural areas. It is available to owners of rental or owner-occupied housing in areas with a large percentage of pre-1940 housing stock. Find more information.

HOME Rental Housing Program

HUD’s HOME Rental Housing Program provides funding, typically through local housing authorities, for the acquisition, construction or renovation of affordable rental housing. As with other programs, hazard abatement is often an eligible renovation expense. Learn more.

Housing Trust Funds

HUD also offers funding for the development of Housing Trust Funds, which can be used to develop or renovate affordable housing. Again, hazard abatement is often an eligible expense, as long as it’s part of the overall renovation. Find more details.

Historic Preservation Tax Credits

State and federal historic tax credits allow for contaminant cleanup as an eligible expense, but nearly always, those activities are just a portion of the overall renovation work. This may be a great option for eligible buildings, especially if a planned renovation is the reason for the remediation. There are two types of credits: one for historic income-producing buildings and another for historic homes. The following information is for income-producing buildings.

With tax credits for income-producing buildings, residential units (typically upper floor and/or multi-family) are eligible. However, if any part of the project includes the owner’s primary residence, that portion is not eligible. To be eligible, the property must either be listed or potentially eligible for listing on state and national registers of historic places or be a contributing building in a historic district. Once that is determined, there are two other steps in the application process. The first is to submit your proposed plans, which are reviewed for adherence to proper renovation principles. The second and final step is to submit photos that show the work was completed as approved.

You’ll need to plan ahead, since it can take months to prepare the application and a few more months for all of the reviews and approvals to be complete. Only then can you begin work. If approved, both the Wisconsin and the federal credits amount to 20% each, for a potential combined total of 40% of the renovation costs. Learn more.

Low-income Housing Tax Credits

Like historic tax credits, state and federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) go toward renovation costs for developers to renovate or create affordable multifamily housing. Often, contaminant abatement is part of the overall renovation expense. In Wisconsin, these programs are facilitated by the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA). Find additional program information.

Brownfield remediation programs

Similar to tax credits, state and federal brownfield cleanup programs typically allow for asbestos and lead paint removal, but only as part of a larger environmental cleanup project, such as removing gas or petroleum tanks and cleaning soil contamination. These are typically reserved for larger-scale redevelopment projects, and the applicants are often local governmental units.

Drinking Water State Revolving Fund

Even lead pipes that channel municipal water to homes can be a health hazard. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR)has funding available to help municipalities replace their outdated lead service lines on private property. Learn more.

In Wisconsin, small communities such as Clintonville, Princeton and Florence received money from DNR to remove residential lead service lines. View a list of these and other recipients.

Also, Green Bay and other utilities have stepped up locally to either fund or offer no-interest loans to fund the replacements in their communities, recognizing that it is in everyone’s interest to do so. Learn more.

Additional resources

Finally, the National Center for Healthy Housing has compiled a list of several pertinent funding programs.

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