You probably know that asbestos is a deadly carcinogen. You might also know that manufacturers used it for decades. Asbestos use in the United States exploded in the late 1930s and continued growing until the late 1970s. By that time, the public became aware of the dangers, and manufacturers stopped producing so many asbestos-laden materials. The threat of lawsuits had become too steep.
However, the fact that asbestos featured in fewer new buildings did nothing to change the fact that the carcinogen continued to exist in countless buildings raised prior to the 1980s. So, when you or others do work on these older buildings, how can you be sure you’re safe from harmful asbestos exposure?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that asbestos generally poses little or no health risk so long as it remains intact. So long as the materials that contain asbestos do not start to wear, crack or become “friable,” their asbestos fibers won’t get loose. It’s only when the fibers get into the air where you can breathe them, onto your skin or onto your clothing that they become a hazard.
However, because building materials can and do break down over time, the owners and managers of public buildings must follow certain rules:
- Hire a certified asbestos professional to test for asbestos prior to any renovation or demolition work
- Send written notification to the program administrator prior to any renovation or demolition work
- Follow the standards for asbestos control throughout the renovation or demolition
- Arrange for safe disposal of all asbestos and asbestos-laden materials
While the building owner and managers must follow these rules, the workers must also follow the rules set forth by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Those rules address the procedures involved in securing the worksite, protecting the workers and disposing the asbestos safely. Different states and municipalities may also provide additional rules.
If you live in an older apartment building and see that materials like insulation wrap are starting to break down, you can report it to your landlord and ask them to test for asbestos. Your landlord should notify you about the presence of asbestos but may not need to remove it unless it could become airborne.
Unlike the owners and managers of public buildings, private homeowners are not bound by federal law. You can work on your house without any risk of violating the asbestos rules set by OSHA and the EPA. Your state or local government may provide some guidance, but even if you don’t need to follow any asbestos rules, it may be a good idea to take precautions:
- Look for worn or cracked materials.
- Test before you do any work. Without testing, it’s often difficult to know which materials contain asbestos.
- Avoid disturbing any asbestos-laden materials.
- Work with an accredited asbestos professional. The professional should work with you to develop a plan to contain the worksite and safely dispose of all asbestos.
Taking the appropriate steps to treat asbestos in your home may add some extra time and cost to your project. However, it can save you far more trouble down the line if it protects you against asbestos exposure and a future marked by asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma.
It’s worth being cautious
Manufacturers may not have understood the risks asbestos presented when they first started using it. But they understood the risks long before they stopped incorporating it into their materials.
The result is that many older homes and buildings remain loaded with the deadly fibers. The best you can do as an owner or tenant is to learn about the risks and take every reasonable step to protect yourself and your family.