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How do you test for asbestos?

Spring is often a time for household chores and cleaning. Sometimes that may include patching up walls or starting into the big renovation you've been putting off. But if you live in an older house or apartment, there are some steps you may want to take before you start your work.

Many older homes and apartment buildings--as well as schools, offices and other buildings--may contain asbestos. Builders used to think of asbestos as a miracle fiber because it could strengthen building materials and improve their heat and fire resistance. But it's also a carcinogen. You don't want your work to free it into the air.

The EPA's stance on asbestos testing

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has now banned most uses of asbestos. However, it doesn't require building owners to remove all existing asbestos. Instead, it says that the asbestos in materials like ceiling tiles, floor tiles and insulation are generally safe until those materials start to break down. It's when the materials break apart and the fibers get into the air that they can cause harm.

Naturally, construction work and renovation projects can disturb many of the asbestos-containing materials you may have in your home. So, if you're going to start work, you might want to know which, if any, of your household materials contain asbestos. If you live in an apartment building, the law likely requires your building's owner to get asbestos testing before starting such a project. And this takes us to the idea of testing.

There are no federal laws that require you to test your private home for asbestos, but the EPA recommends you do. In an asbestos FAQ, the EPA recommends:

  • You get some base level information about materials by reading their labels and contacting their manufacturers
  • You work with a certified asbestos inspector to test all suspect materials
  • You test all fraying and crumbling materials that may contain asbestos, even if you don't intend to work with them
  • You test at least two samples from each suspect material
  • Inspectors who want to test samples themselves need to meet specific lab standards
  • You follow strict standards for removing and disposing of any asbestos you discover

Most home improvement stores carry do-it-yourself testing kits. However, when U.S. News & World Report looked at these in 2016, its reporters noted that the prices of these kits often didn't include the lab fees you'd need to pay. Given the number of samples you might need to test, you might save less money than you'd expect by using these kits instead of working with a professional.

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