How to renovate safely when you run into unexpected bugs, mould and other nasties

When Lucas MacLean and Mackenzie Jowett bought their latest renovator’s delight, they anticipated it would be like their previous DIY projects.

Instead, it brought with it an unexpected challenge for the couple – a flea infestation.

“When we had first come around to look at [the property], Mackenzie … walked away saying she was feeling like she was getting bitten on the arms,” Lucas said.

The bites had spread before they had even picked up the tools to do any of the remodelling.

“I had ripped up the carpet, and I could feel something similar, but I … thought it was … just standard itches you get from dust and fabric,” Lucas said.

“Then my dad had come and helped me move the carpet out and he’s the one that said, ‘I think there’s fleas in the carpet and I’m getting bitten.'”

While renovations often bring emotional and financial stresses and strains, sometimes – as for Lucas and Mackenzie – they can also affect your physical health.

So, what do you do if you run into a nasty surprise? 

Fleas and carpet beetles

Luckily, Lucas and Mackenzie’s flea infestation didn’t lead to more serious health concerns.

Flea bites are extremely itchy and appear as red and swollen lumps before developing into a blister or a small wound the next day.

Because of the itchiness, it’s not uncommon for people to get secondary infections from scratching the bites and that, in some cases, could result in a tapeworm infection.

A wide shot of a brown shag carpet in an empty room
Carpet was the source of Lucas and Mackenzie’s flea infestation. (Supplied: Lucas MacLean)

The pair only got rid of their fleas by removing the infested materials.

“We removed all the carpet, and then all the fleas just moved into the curtains,” Mackenzie said.

“All the curtains had to come down — no curtains, no carpet.”

Anthony Bourke and Yasmine Ghoniem stand smiling in a backyard with the inside of a house behind them

According to Damien Bishop, who runs a pest control company, the bug you’re most likely to find that can cause you grief while renovating is the carpet beetle.

He says the beetle has “very fine” fibres that can set off people’s allergies and mean it’s also better to get a professional to remove them, instead of trying yourself.

“Even after we’ve sprayed and treated, when people lift carpet and stir up the fibres, it can cause a lot of distress to the customer in regards to allergies,” Mr Bishop said.

“We do recommend treating, and then a heavy clean before the carpet is removed or disturbed.”

Dreaded mould

Unlike dust, if you disturb mould while renovating, it’s impossible to see the spores that end up in the air around you and, as a consequence, in your lungs.

All kinds of mould can be dangerous, and if you’ve stumbled across it, it likely indicates a bigger issue such as dampness or a leak.

If inhaled, mould spores can lead to symptoms including a cough, runny nose, headaches, wheezing and fatigue.

In some cases, touching it can also cause skin irritations.

Sometimes this is because your body is reacting to the mould, while other times, it could be that you’ve developed an infection from the mould itself.

A woman wearing gloves and a mask cleans mould off a white wall. She has a spray bottle in her right hand a cloth in her left
A diluted vinegar mix is a good way to remove mould from surfaces. (Supplied: Getty Images)

People who have asthma or are immunocompromised are also at a higher risk of developing illness.

If you’re going to try to tackle the mould yourself, it’s crucial to wear protective gear such as a high-quality P2 or P3 mask and gloves.

Next, a diluted mixture of white vinegar is your friend. 

State and territory government advice differs slightly on the ratio, but it should be between 70 to 80 per cent vinegar to 30 to 20 per cent water. 

Diluted tea tree or clove oil solutions can also be effective, but clove oil causes some surfaces to discolour and can cause allergies.

Make sure you have a few clean cloths to use while removing the mould because using a dirty cloth might spread the spores and undo your hard work.

Lastly, make sure you throw out all used and dirty cloths and let the area dry completely before you look to do any more work.

A wide angle shot of a man swinging a sledgehammer to get rid of a tiled wall in his bathroom
Renovating, particularly wet areas, carries the risk of disturbing mould. (Supplied: Lucas MacLean)

Excessive dust

This one might seem obvious, but dust created during renovations is its own beast compared to ordinary household dust.

Usually, there’s more of it than you anticipate, especially if you’re working on an exposed concrete slab or have patching and sanding to do.

Antoinette discovered this when she and her family renovated nearly every corner of their Gold Coast home while they lived there.

“The dust is what gets me,” Antoinette told ABC TV’s Grand Designs Transformations.

“I’m losing my voice because of the dust.

“Being asthmatic and living in a reno site is probably not the best combination.”

The level of dust and length of the renovation also led to confronting medical advice.

While it’s unlikely to catch you off guard, if you’re thinking about cutting an existing engineered stone benchtop, it carries the risk of lung disease silicosis if not done properly or without proper protection. 

A ban on engineered stone comes into effect this July.

Work health and safety expert Tim Lawler says even if you’re not asthmatic, it’s important to protect your lungs properly.

“If you’re going to get into renos, it’s not a big expense or investment to get a [P3] dust mask … which is a reusable rubber mask and has cartridges that attach to it,” he said.

“They seal much better than the little paper dust masks and give you a lot more protection.”

A selfie of Mackenzie wearing a dust mask during her renovation
A mask like Mackenzie’s is recommended during any work that might create dust. (Supplied: Lucas MacLean)

He also advises that wearing a mask is a good idea even if you aren’t expecting to create dust.

“When you’re renovating, you’re opening up somebody else’s work [and] you don’t know the quality of what’s behind that wall or in that ceiling,” he said.

“You can open up a cavity, and a bunch of insulation dust puffs out, and people don’t realise that.”

Some other things to think about include:

  • Make sure you’re clean shaven to get a good seal with your mask.
  • Replace dust mask cartridges regularly.
  • Keep any dusty clothes out of living areas.
  • Use door snakes to block off non-work areas if you’re living around your renovations.
  • Clean as you go and be sure to wet or mist the dust before sweeping or vacuuming it to stop it from spreading.
  • Lastly, the WA’s health department has this handy cleaning tip: “Dust accumulates where it lands, so always start high and work your way down”.

Tips for renovating while you live in your home

It can be a new level of chaos when you’re renovating around your family as you live in your home. These couples shared their tips for how to get through it.

Tamiko Gleeson and her husband Daniel stand in an empty room under construction. They hold their dog and smile at the camera

Mouse droppings and bird lice

Animal droppings might be another hazard you unexpectedly encounter if you’re doing anything that involves exposing wall cavities.

After making it through the fleas, Lucas and Mackenzie were unlucky enough to find a large pile of mouse droppings after pulling down some of the walls in their house.

Undisturbed droppings don’t pose a risk, but given some viruses carried by mice and rats can be transmitted through their faeces (and urine), being careful when you get rid of them is important.

Lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV), which can be contracted through exposure to mouse urine, faeces or saliva, causes headache and neck stiffness and light aversion.

Depending on how much you have to clean and whether there’s any sign of live animals, hiring a professional might be the best option.

If you attempt to remove the droppings yourself, it’s safest to wear both protective gloves and a P2 mask as breathing in dust from infected faeces can also transmit disease.

Mouse droppings on a windowsill found during a renovation
Mouse droppings found during a renovation. (Supplied: Lucas MacLean)

Make sure you disinfect the area afterwards thoroughly and wash any bedding or clothing that’s exposed in hot water with detergent.

Mr Bishop said he had also had clients who had found bird nests in ceiling cavities, which were housing bird lice, also known as bird mites.

“They need a blood source, a meal, a host to live off, and that commonly is us, the human,” he said.

“If you’re removing [a nest] it can spread that bird lice throughout the house.”

Luckily, bird lice don’t transmit diseases, but a bite can cause severe itching and swelling and can often be tricky to diagnose.

Again, if you’re going to remove a bird nest or bird droppings, be sure to wear a mask and gloves to prevent catching mites and clean the area afterwards with an insecticide spray or powder.

Asbestos 

This one is perhaps the danger people are most keenly aware of.

But even if you think your house is clear, it can sometimes pop up in places you don’t expect.

As well as being used in wet areas and eaves, asbestos was used in a range of materials you might find in flooring, kitchens, roofs, ceilings and walls.

Identifying when a material contains asbestos can be difficult and needs to be done by a professional, ideally before you start work on your house.

So, the advice is to treat anything you think might be asbestos as though it is and get it tested before you continue any projects.

Asbestos warning for home renovators

The lawyer for a man awarded a landmark $3 million payout from asbestos maker James Hardie has warned that the rise in popularity of home renovation TV shows could be putting more lives at risk.

'Caution asbestos' tape around fence of demolished house in Mt Stuart March 2, 2017

Remember your duty of care

While the advice above is about protecting yourself during a DIY job, Mr Lawler pointed out that if you’re thinking of asking friends or family to pitch in, you have a legal responsibilityto make sure they’re safe. 

And yes, it applies even if they’re doing it for free.

“In the eyes of the law, you’re asking them to perform work, and you have a duty of care to ensure that you provide them a safe workplace,” he said.

Mr Lawler said if something goes wrong, it’s up to you to show you took the necessary steps to avoid it.

“It’s not really a defensible position to kind of go, ‘I watched Grand Designs, and I thought we’d give it a crack [but] something went wrong. How was I supposed to know?'” he said. 

“It’s not unreasonable to expect that people going through a renovation would read up on the risks.”

Have you done a renovation? Were there some surprises? Share your experience and your tips in the comments section below.

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