Getting Unstuck: Wallpaper Removal

The Healthy Home Project house came with its fair share of outdated wallpaper, from the 60’s.  This weekend I’m working in the bathroom, removing a blue metallic flowered version.  It’s quite a learning experience, but more manageable when broken down into simpler steps. 

Is wallpaper healthy?  Most wallpaper today is made of vinyl, one of the most toxic plastics produced and rife with phthalates (pronounced tha-lates).  These chemicals are used to “soften” hard plastics to make them pliable.  The Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxicity & Exposure Assessment for Children’s Health details the dangers for kids, including developmental abnormalities such as cleft palate and skeletal malformations.  Phthalates can act as endocrine disruptors as well, altering the body’s hormone system.  Vinyl wallpaper is easy to clean and cheap to buy, but spells trouble on the health front.

Phthalates can show up in unexpected places, migrating from the everyday products we buy – even those on our walls – and into the environment, like house dust.  If it’s vinyl wallpaper from the 70’s or before, it may also contain asbestos fibers, so it is essential to consult a state-certified asbestos consultant for testing, preferably one who comes highly recommended from a trusted realtor, home inspector or other homeowners in the area.  If you’re renting, be sure to understand your rights and options to avoid any exposure issues for your family.

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 Though vinyl by itself is a tough and flexible material, asbestos, a tiny fiber-like substance that can easily break apart and float in the air, was once added to vinyl to make it stronger and long lasting. These asbestos fibers are so tiny that they cannot be seen by the naked eye, yet they become incredibly dangerous when introduced into the lungs through inhalation.  In the late 1970s, when it was made widely known how toxic asbestos was, vinyl wallpaper was no longer manufactured using asbestos, but products containing the deadly mineral continued to be sold through the 1980s.  Older buildings may still have asbestos-containing wallpaper on their interior walls.  (http://www.mesotheliomasymptoms.com/household/vinyl-wallpaper)

The American Lung Association states, “If you know or suspect there is asbestos in your home or workplace, leave the material alone if possible.  Asbestos-containing materials are safe as long as they are in good condition and not disturbed.  Fibers are unlikely to become airborne unless materials are cut, ripped or sanded.   If you need to remodel, remove or clean up asbestos, be sure to hire trained professionals.”

Thankfully this blue metallic wallpaper is so old that it pre-dates vinyl, so it’s simply layers of paper with a glue backing. The top metallic layer peeled right off, and in fact, all came down in about an hour during the kids’ sleepover.  

This afternoon I’m tackling the tough stuff…the undermost “glue” layer.  I sprayed it down with water and it hardly budged, so I turned to a product from Green Depot called Pure & Simple Wallpaper Remover, made from natural materials including clay, starch and wheat.  Following the directions, I mixed a tablespoon (1/2 oz.) in a quart spray bottle of warm water. Working around the room with spray bottle in one hand and sponge in the other (to keep the excess from dripping), each section got a few minutes to soak in.  The next step is to go back to the starting point, using a scraper.  The glue backing is coming off well and a few hours from now, this bathroom will be unstuck from the 60’s.

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