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OSLO (Reuters) - The health risks from toxins such as lead in old paint or asbestos in walls are too often overlooked when homes are upgraded, according to a study on Sunday calling on governments to set tougher pollution rules.
The report, by Canadian experts, said that retrofits of old buildings, such as insulation meant to save energy and limit greenhouse gas emissions, often released poisons that can be especially damaging to children.
"Without sufficient care, retrofits...can increase the health risks," Theresa McClenaghan, executive director of the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA), told Reuters as she outlined a CELA project to limit health risks.
"If you do it right, we can make houses healthier, safer and more energy efficient," she said. CELA called for tighter pollution controls, more training of contractors and a greater regard for health in designing energy efficiency programmes.
It said the United States and France were among very few nations with rules for handling old lead paint, whose use was banned decades ago by developed nations. Lead can damage the developing brain of young children.
Lead, making up half the weight of some old paints, was long used to make paint more durable, shiny and water resilient. A Canadian home built in the 1930s might have accumulated more than 200 kg (440.9 lb) of lead, CELA said.
The lead poses little threat if undisturbed but "replacing old windows or drilling into walls to blow in insulation, for example, can contaminate the house with lead dust," CELA said.
Asbestos, used as a flame retardant, can cause cancer. In Canada, it was used in 300,000 to 400,000 homes as loose fill in attics until it was taken off the market in 1990. Disturbing asbestos can release microscopic fibers to the air.
Other toxins include PCBs, used in some building materials.
A 2009 study by the U.S. Economic Policy Institute estimated that every dollar invested in controlling lead paint hazards brought between $17 and $221 in long-term health benefits.
CELA said that U.S. rules could be a guide. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency obliges contractors to do lead-safe renovations on pre-1978 homes, isolating rooms where work is under way and using special vacuums and masks for dust.
"It's not difficult to persuade parents" of the benefits of tougher rules, said Erica Phipps, of the Canadian Partnership for Children's Health and Environment. "The real hard sell is convincing landlords."
Bruce Lamphear, a professor at Simon Fraser University and expert on environmental health, said that lead paint was still used in China, India and many other developing nations.
"There is no safe level of exposure," he said. Lead has been banned more widely from gasoline -- with only a handful of nations still using leaded fuel.
Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton