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Asbestos in the Home



A naturally occurring mineral, asbestos was widely used in a variety of building components through the late 1970s.  During that decade, undeniable evidence proved that inhaling small asbestos fibers could lead to a variety of health issues, including a rare form of cancer, called mesothelioma, and asbestosis, a chronic and progressive disease of the lungs that causes severe pulmonary ailments.  Asbestos exposure is also known to cause lung and gastrointestinal cancer as well.

Once the dangers of asbestos were proven, it was removed from many building materials—but not before it was fitted in nearly every home built before 1978 (asbestos was still used in construction after this date, just in smaller quantities).  Generally, asbestos does not cause health problems unless its fibers are released into the air; so many homes built before the ’80s still contain asbestos. 

Where You May Find Asbestos

Asbestos was once used in many types of building materials.  Because it is fireproof and features insulating properties, asbestos was commonly used in ceiling and floor tiles, insulated electrical wiring, the HVAC system, wall and attic insulation, as well as wall boards.  Products that contain asbestos are not easy to identify on sight, and it is generally understood that if your home was built prior to 1978, you should assume that it contains asbestos building materials to some degree.

How to Test for Asbestos

If you are concerned that your home contains asbestos building materials, you can hire an experienced licensed contractor or home inspector for an assessment.  Depending on the material, they may be able to tell by visual inspection whether a building product contains asbestos.  This, however, is not a foolproof method.  The only surefire way to know if your home contains asbestos is to have a professional collect samples of the building materials.  The samples are sent to a laboratory where testing will verify asbestos contamination.

Asbestos Abatement

To prevent health problems due to asbestos exposure, you should hire a professional to determine the location of any asbestos-containing building materials and have them removed.  If you cannot afford to replace the asbestos material, have the contractor seal off the material until complete removal is an option.  If the asbestos products become damaged or worn, or if they become friable or easily crumbled, they should be repaired or replaced immediately.

While it may be difficult to assess the condition of electrical wiring or your heating and cooling system, peeling floor tiles or drooping ceiling tiles are a sure sign that repair or replacement is needed.  Damaged asbestos will release microscopic fibers into the air, which are easily inhaled and lodge into the lungs, causing severe harm over time.  Many professionals advise if the asbestos is not damaged it should be left alone or sealed in some protective manner, as it presents little health risk.  If the asbestos is damaged, though, the homeowner needs to consider the options on how to approach the problem.  Federal asbestos abatement laws typically apply only to commercial buildings and larger residential buildings, and not to residential buildings of four or less units.  Though most homeowners are legally allowed to remove asbestos themselves, this is an extremely risky endeavor that should be left to an experienced licensed professional.

Hire A Professional

There are a variety of professionals available for asbestos abatement in the home.  Whether you want to remove the asbestos-containing materials completely, or choose to cover them in some way, a licensed professional offers safety and security, as removing asbestos on your own is exceptionally hazardous. 

Hiring a licensed contractor provides peace of mind and may protect you and your family from exposure to the deadly microscopic asbestos fibers.  Professionals can perform air quality tests before, during, and after the remediation process—both in the contaminated part of the home as well as other areas.  Air monitoring can be particularly reassuring if your family is living in the home during abatement.

Methods of Remediation

Undoubtedly, some will choose to remove the asbestos-containing materials themselves, despite the danger of developing a deadly disease.  Those who are willing to take the risk should research the methods of remediation and take every precaution possible.  There are four standard ways of dealing with the asbestos materials in the home:

Enclosure.  When enclosing the asbestos-containing material, you are essentially building a box around the area that prevents the damaged asbestos particles from entering the air.  Diligent care must be taken during construction of the enclosure to ensure the asbestos is not disturbed.

Encapsulation.  Encapsulation is a process where an acrylic substance is applied with a sprayer over the asbestos.  Since the acrylic is sprayed on, the asbestos is not disturbed during the process, and the acrylic acts as a seal over the asbestos.

Repair.  Repairing the damaged asbestos presents a serious concern of exposure, as the damaged asbestos material may release fibers during removal and replacement.  The undamaged building material left intact should be avoided at all costs.  Working in close proximity to the disturbed asbestos-containing material makes it imperative to be properly equipped (to reduce asbestos exposure).

Removal.  If the asbestos-containing material is badly damaged, or if the idea of living in a home that contains asbestos is too disquieting, you may need to consider asbestos removal.  Before removing asbestos, it is vital to fully research not only how to remove the asbestos, but also what safety equipment should be worn and what you will do with the harmful asbestos-contaminated materials upon removal.  These materials are considered hazardous waste and cannot be disposed with regular trash.  During the removal process, you must place signs at the entrance of the area so no one wanders in without protection.  Make sure to wear protective clothing and a respirator, and leave that clothing and all tools behind at the end of the work day.  Do not bring the clothing or your shoes into the rest of the house.  Create an airlock with plastic sheeting to keep asbestos fibers from entering the rest of the house, and always thoroughly wet the area of removal to reduce the chance of asbestos fibers becoming airborne.


For more resources on asbestos, the various forms of asbestos cancer and other diseases caused by asbestos exposure, please visit Asbestos.com