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Asbestos Exposure in Your Home

asbestos exposureAsbestos exposure may be a problem you don’t even think about.  You assume asbestos exposure would never happen to you.  Especially if you don’t work in manufacturing, automotive, or shipbuilding – major industries where asbestos exposure is likely to happen. This is the 21st century and asbestos is longer widely used.

But here’s the reality check.  Home is where the heart is, as they say. But it may also be where the asbestos is – and in places you can’t even see.

Older Homes Ooze with Charm and Potential Asbestos Exposure

What’s not to like about older homes?  They often have elegant high ceilings, solid plaster walls, vintage hardwood floors and charming architectural details hard to come by in newer more bland construction. The downside is the potential for asbestos exposure. Most homes built before 1975 contain asbestos.

Although the manufacture of construction materials containing asbestos mostly has stopped, millions of single family homes and apartment buildings still may harbor substantial amounts of asbestos.

Insulation Is Classic Example of Hidden Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos was once prized for its ability to take the heat. It could withstand high temperatures without catching on fire. That made it a likely component to use in products where heat resistance is a factor. That included home insulation.  What makes insulation especially dangerous, especially blown-in insulation, is that it is more likely to be loose and release dust as it breaks down or is moved.

In August 2000, an assistant U.S. Surgeon General requested warnings to the public about insulation products containing asbestos. Testing had revealed that any handling of asbestos-based insulation by homeowners could trigger airborne asbestos exposure at greater than 150 times the asbestos exposure level that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration considered safe for workers.

The exact number and location of homes that may contain the asbestos-based insulation is uncertain. The company’s files and testimony put estimates at anywhere from 12 million to 35 million homes, offices and schools.

An EPA toxicologist reported that if people with this type of insulation did any repair work, like installing fans or light fixtures in their ceilings, could stir up enough asbestos dust to potentially cost them their lives.

That concern focuses on insulation. The bigger picture is that insulation is but one of many possible materials in a house that may contain asbestos.

The Risk of Even a Little Bit of Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos exposure can be lethal at any level. All health authorities agree that there is no such thing as a safe level of asbestos exposure. Asbestos remains relatively unproblematic if it is inert, covered and undisturbed. But like a previously calm volcano erupting, once asbestos is damaged and broken apart in a renovation or repair project, dangerous asbestos dust particles can be released.

You cannot smell or taste asbestos. The dust particles are tinier than snowflakes and invisible to the eye. But unlike snowflakes, they do not melt.  Microscopic asbestos particles when inhaled begin to scar and damage body tissue wherever they settle, typically the lungs. There are no symptoms anyone would notice at first. But over decades damage silently builds up. By the time a serious asbestos-related illness such as mesothelioma emerges, it is usually too late. There is no cure.

DIY Asbestos Exposure in the Home

Today in the United States, asbestos exposures can occur during repair, renovation, removal, or maintenance of asbestos that was installed years ago.  The home’s residents can also be exposed to asbestos while this work is underway and even after.

But do-it-yourself (DIY) home remodel projects have become a likely cause of risky asbestos exposure, mainly because many home owners don’t know what to look for.  A list of asbestos products used in the construction of homes before 1975 includes:

  • floor tiles and the adhesive used to put them down
  • linoleum
  • spackling, caulking and joint compound on drywall
  • plaster and cement
  • some roofing materials
  • insulation for walls, pipes and HVAC ducts
  • some forms of siding

Asbestos Is Still Legal in These Products

Beginning in the early 1970s, asbestos exposure concerns prompted many attempts to ban the use of asbestos in many products. This culminated in 1989, with the EPA banning most asbestos-containing products through the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). However, in 1991, this was overturned as a result of industry opposition.  Because of that, although everyone thinks asbestos has been banned, it still lurks in many products available to purchase by unsuspecting consumers.

Here are some listed by the EPA that a home owner or home remodeler might encounter:

  • Cement corrugated sheet
  • Cement flat sheet
  • Pipeline wrap
  • Roofing felt
  • Vinyl floor tile
  • Cement shingle
  • Millboard
  • Cement pipe
  • Gaskets
  • Non-roofing coatings
  • Roof coatings

Asbestos Do’s and Don’ts for the Homeowner

The EPA advises taking the following precautions to avoid asbestos exposure:

  • Do leave undamaged asbestos-containing materials alone.
  • Do avoid any areas where there’s damaged material that may contain asbestos. Keep the areas off limits to children.
  • Do take every precaution to avoid damaging asbestos-containing material.
  • Do have removal and major repair done by people trained and qualified in handling asbestos. Testing and minor repair also should be done by a qualified accredited asbestos professional.
  • Don’t dust, sweep, or vacuum debris that may contain asbestos.
  • Don’t saw, sand, scrape, or drill holes in asbestos-containing materials.
  • Don’t use abrasive pads or brushes on power strippers to strip wax from asbestos on flooring that may contain asbestos.
  • Don’t sand or try to level asbestos flooring or its backing. When asbestos flooring needs replacing install new floor covering over it, if possible.
  • Don’t track material that could contain asbestos through the house. If you think you may have, the area must be cleaned. Call an asbestos professional.

How to Prevent Asbestos Exposure At Home

Asbestos exposure is to be avoided for everyone’s health and safety. The best way to do that is to have your home or one you may buy or rent checked by a professional asbestos inspector.

An asbestos inspector will know where to look for possible asbestos, take samples for laboratory analysis, and suggest where and how any possible asbestos contamination should be repaired. Expect to spend about $400 to $800 for the inspection, lab fees, and report for a 1,500 square foot home.

Check with local health department and EPA offices for help finding an accredited asbestos professional to do this important work for you.

How Much Asbestos Removal Costs

Asbestos removal is a big hazardous job and it comes – no surprise – with a big price tag. But your life and the lives of your loved ones could be at stake. Clearing your home of asbestos by a professional asbestos abatement contractor could cost $2,000 to $10,000.  That should include using techniques to avoid dispersing dangerous asbestos particles during the removal process as well as the removal itself. It will also include the disposal of the asbestos removed from your home in an approved hazardous waste landfill in accordance with federal, state and local safety regulations.

Although asbestos removal is costly, so is the treatment of asbestos-caused disease.  It is better to prevent asbestos exposure before it happens.


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