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How difficult is it to rid a building of asbestos?

For many years, manufacturers used asbestos in all kinds of building and construction materials. The material’s natural strength and heat resistance made it useful for insulation, floor tiles, ceiling tiles and other products. But scientists have since learned more about how dangerous the material is.

People exposed to asbestos can breathe the fibers into their lungs or absorb the fibers through their skin. Those fibers can then cause diseases such as lung cancer and mesothelioma. As a result, homeowners and people who work in buildings laced with asbestos are right to be concerned when those buildings start to wear and fall apart. If building materials release asbestos into the air, they could put you, your family and your coworkers at risk.

Asbestos removal can take lots of time and money

Philadelphia's asbestos problem recently made the news after a veteran teacher was diagnosed with mesothelioma. While no one knows for sure how and where the teacher was exposed to asbestos, asbestos exposure is the only risk with a definite link to mesothelioma. And testers have found asbestos in Philadelphia’s schools several times. In response, the teachers’ union has said it wants $100 million to clean up the city’s schools.

Why should it cost so much to remove the asbestos? The answer owes largely to the difficulties involved. As the EPA notes, asbestos remediation needs specially trained and certified professionals. And they need to take all sorts of safety steps, including:

  • Test materials for asbestos. Inspectors will check old materials for asbestos and tell the owners what steps they need to take.
  • Wear protective equipment. Asbestos fibers can get stuck in cloth, so workers need to wear synthetic materials that won’t absorb the fibers. They should also need respirators to avoid breathing the fibers. The EPA cautions that disposable dust masks don’t offer enough protection.
  • Isolate the contaminated space. To limit the spread of asbestos fibers, workers need to seal the contaminated space, keeping it free of all people, animals and plants. They seal the area with tape and temporary barriers to prevent the air from carrying fibers in and out.
  • Wet clean the area. Workers must clean with wet cloths and mops to avoid dry dusting fibers back into the air. Similarly, they must use special HEPA vacuums to filter out the fibers. Normal vacuums simply release the fibers back into the air.
  • Safely clean and dispose of all trash. Asbestos materials cannot be thrown into the trash like other materials. Doing so would simply release the fibers back into the environment and put people at risk. Instead, workers must seal all debris in sturdy, tight plastic containers. They also need to be careful about cleaning their suits. If they bring contaminated clothing home, they could put family members at risk.
  • Test for asbestos after the removal. After the work is done, inspectors must test the area for asbestos once again.

Of course, these steps are all added to the standard costs of any repairs and replacement materials. They add to the time and money needed for the repairs, but they may also spare people from future cancer.

Asbestos removal is a serious job

If you’re worried about asbestos in your home, you likely don't want to perform the removal yourself. While federal law doesn’t require you to get accredited testing and removal for your single-family home, some states and localities may have their own asbestos laws. More importantly, the money you may save is rarely worth the risk of exposing yourself or your family to a known carcinogen. It may be difficult to remove the material safely, but the effort can pay dividends over the rest of your life.

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