Home energy renovations and retrofits may help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cut costs, but a new report urges greater education and care to avoid the release of toxic substances during the process.

Children are most susceptible to such exposures, and activities taking place during renovations and retrofits can significantly increase their risk if care isn't taken, according to the report from the Canadian Environmental Law Association.

The paper is part of a two-year, Ontario-focused project of the Canadian Partnership for Children's Health and Environment.

The report notes that lead was often used in paints during the 20th century, particularly in housing built prior to the 1950s, and extensively in plumbing and several other industrial and consumer products. Until 1977, lead was often added to interior paint to make it more brilliant, durable and moisture-resistant.

The older the home, the higher the lead content in the paint is likely to be. It's been estimated an older house can contain up to 225 kilos of lead.

Risk of exposure can occur not just when paint isn't properly maintained, but also when renos, repair or painting activities take place without appropriate measures to control the spread of dust and paint chips containing lead, the report noted.

Lead can cause damage to nerves or nerve tissue, especially for the developing fetus and child. Exposure has also been linked to learning and behavioural problems such as IQ deficits, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or hyperactivity and increased aggression.

Children's environmental health expert Dr. Bruce Lanphear said lead appears to affect the prefrontal cortex, or frontal lobes, of the brain.

"When you start screwing up the prefrontal cortex, you can have an impact not only on children's learning abilities but their ability to organize, to plan, to delay gratification," said Lanphear, a senior scientist with the Child and Family Research Institute at B.C. Children's Hospital and professor at Simon Fraser University, both in Vancouver.

Kathleen Cooper, a senior researcher at the Canadian Environmental Law Association, said the team spent a year doing research, including an online survey of energy efficiency auditors and building professionals.

The survey found while 93 per cent of respondents discuss some environmental health issues with their clients, only 16 per cent raise lead as a concern. Among energy professionals surveyed, only 7.1 per cent reported screening or testing for lead.

South of the border, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires contractors to be lead-safe certified if they are doing renovation, repair or painting in pre-1978 homes, child-care facilities and schools.

Cooper said there's strong evidence that children living in poverty bear a disproportionate burden of environmental health risks. Low-income housing is most typically older housing where risks are often greater, particularly for lead.

"They often live in substandard housing and housing that's often in most need of the energy retrofits," she said in an interview.

When building professionals were asked why they think people aren't asking about these issues, one of the reasons suspected was that they don't feel confident in their knowledge in the area, said Erica Phipps, partnership director for the Canadian Partnership for Children's Health and Environment (CPCHE).

"If they knew more about it, they may be more proactive in asking their contractors to do things in a way that would reduce the potential for lead, dust or other environmental health hazards."

Cooper said their next objective is to develop awareness-raising material for energy auditors and the public. A series of fact sheets concerning safe renovations are available on CPCHE's website.

It's recommended pregnant women not be involved in renovations, which they often are in preparing rooms for their babies.

Throughout the course of daily life, dust control with a damp cloth or mop or a good vacuum is essential, particularly if parents have an infant or a crawling child, said Phipps. She noted it is of obvious critical importance during renovations where all sorts of dust can be laden with lead, asbestos and other toxins.

Phipps said parents are also advised to choose cleaning products and other products wisely to reduce exposure to harmful fumes and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. For example, when doing a renovation requiring caulking materials and paints, look for ones with low or no VOCs on the label.

If renovations are being done in a room that needs to be walled off by plastics, workers should walk in and out on a surface that can be picked up everyday and in an area separate from where children are playing, said Lanphear.