If you live in a home that was constructed before 1990, you may be living with asbestos. Asbestos was used in many building materials over the last 100 years. While it is a matter for concern, absent some unusual circumstances, in most cases it shouldn’t pose an immediate health risk.
Asbestos is a silica mineral that is made up of fibers. These fibers are part of what made asbestos attractive as a building material, as they give materials strength.
Asbestos is also fire resistant, leading to its being used for insulation and in places where heat resistance is necessary, like brake pads and around boilers and steam fittings.
Unfortunately, asbestos didn’t turn out to be the “miracle material” everyone thought it to be – in fact its use has created various medical concerns. One such concern is mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that is associated with asbestos. It develops from long exposure to asbestos fibers through inhalation. This cancer appears frequently in asbestos miners, but is also seen in shipyard workers, electricians, plumbers and mechanics that have been exposed to a lifetime of asbestos-laden materials.
Because of its previous wide application in building materials, asbestos may appear in many locations, especially in homes built decades ago. In the United States, it has been banned in textured paints and joint compounds – and even though its use has diminished in other materials, millions of homes contain asbestos because it was used in so many products over such a long period of time.
Because of the versatility of asbestos, it was used in countless ways. In addition to its fire resistance qualities, asbestos also provides sound abatement; meaning floor and ceiling tile were ideal candidates for using asbestos. Hundreds of thousands of houses built after World War II have basements with asbestos ceiling and floor tiles.
Asbestos may also be present in wallboard, cement board, pipe wrapping, insulation blankets or tape, vinyl tile, resilient tile and some gaskets on older furnaces using oil or coal. In pre-1950 homes, it may show up in insulation inside walls.
Don’t Do Anything
If the material containing the asbestos is undamaged, it is best to leave it alone. For instance, say your furnace ducts that attach to your furnace in the basement have white insulation blankets wrapped around them and your house was built in 1950. There is a good chance it contains asbestos, but if it is intact without any breaks in the surface or worn areas – and not likely to be disturbed in the future – the EPA recommends to leave the material alone. Tampering with the material only risks release of asbestos fibers.
One means of controlling exposure to asbestos fibers is “encapsulation.” This is typically done with a special paint or other materials, and it seals the asbestos fibers so they cannot escape into the air.
They can also be enclosed in another material that prevents the movement of asbestos fibers into the air.
Call A Professional
If you need to remodel an area of your house that you suspect contains asbestos, contact a licensed professional contractor. Your attempt to “do it yourself” may substantially increase your risk, as removing some items, like floor or ceiling tile may cause them to break, shatter, or flake and disturb the asbestos fibers they contain.
If you are unsure, contact a professional to test the material, as they understand how to obtain a sample with releasing asbestos in the process.
An asbestos abatement contractor can identify if a material contains asbestos and safely remove and dispose of the material. Also, in most parts of the country, disposal of asbestos materials into the normal trash collection is illegal.
It is most important to prevent materials made out of asbestos from being turned into airborne dust. Never drill, sand or use a saw on these materials.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also warns against sweeping or vacuuming debris that contains asbestos, as this breaks the fibers into smaller and more dangerous pieces. Vacuuming it also can “aerosolize” the material that escapes filtration, making it much more of a health risk.
Do Your Homework On A Contractor
The EPA recommends that if you need to have asbestos removed from your house, you should be careful in the selection of a contractor, and should interview more than one.
Removal is very expensive and brings with it the increased risk of releasing asbestos fibers, and therefore should be used as a last resort. Unscrupulous contractors may attempt to frighten you into a high-cost job when cheaper solutions may be just as effective.
If you have asbestos floor tile in basement, even if worn and possibly a source of fibers, simply coating the floor with new tile may solve the problem and would be much less expensive, and pose less risk than tearing up all the old tile and its adhesive.
While most asbestos in a home presents a limited risk, it is good to be aware of where it is and check to ensure that it is in good condition. This will prevent you from inadvertently damaging it and releasing fibers.