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DIY Enthusiasts and the Risks of Asbestos Exposure

asbestos exposurePeople who enjoy taking on home renovation projects themselves are usually cognizant of the safety risks involved. They know when to turn the gas off, how to steer clear of live electric wires and how to keep power tools safely isolated. If the house or building that a do-it-yourself enthusiast is working on is particularly old, he or she should also be aware of the likelihood of asbestos exposure.

The problem, though, is that the material is so ubiquitous that it’s not always easy to tell what contains asbestos and what doesn’t. Recently, I read a blogger’s column that discussed how asbestos can be found in certain doors.

Fire doors ironically can pose safety risks
Australian blogger David Caldwell, who also works as a transport engineer, wrote an entry about how he was installing a new lock on a fire door that was manufactured during the 1980s. The project involved drilling a series of holes through the wood of the door.

As you can imagine, all that drilling produced a lot of dust. Initially, all the dust resembled timber. However, as the sun went down and the work progressed, Caldwell hadn’t noticed that the texture of the dust was changing. It was only after Caldwell started to brush the dust off his clothing that he noticed it contained different colors. When he shined a flashlight on the dust, he saw white and gray coloration.

After having samples sent to a lab, he learned that the fire door was manufactured with asbestos and that, to his horror, he had been breathing in the dust at eye level.

Why is asbestos present in fire doors?
For thousands of years, civilization has used asbestos because of its physical properties that make it strong and resistant to heat, friction and fire. This led manufacturers of fire doors to use this mineral for their products. Asbestos may also be present in the wood or metal components of regular doors as a form of insulation.

Asbestos usually doesn’t pose a health threat to anyone unless it’s been disturbed somehow. When it comes to maintenance work on doors, that means it’s a good idea to refrain from using power tools, which would damage the material and make mineral fibers airborne. Once these fibers enter a human body, they can cause diseases such as malignant mesothelioma and lung cancer to develop unnoticed for decades.

Where else is asbestos found?
Asbestos use in the U.S. reached its peak around the mid-1970s, when the mineral was present in more than 3,000 commercial and industrial products. That means that buildings and houses that were erected during this time are likely to contain products tainted by asbestos.

If you enjoy doing home maintenance and renovation projects yourself, remember that asbestos may be present in:

  • Vermiculite insulation in the walls or attic
  • Vinyl flooring and backing
  • Textured paint
  • Walls and floors that surround wood-burning stoves
  • Hot water or steam pipes
  • Oil and coal furnaces
  • Unless a product is clearly labeled, you’re not likely to be certain of whether it contains asbestos. If that’s the case, you should assume that it does have asbestos and make an effort not to let anyone disturb it.

But, if you think you’d feel better knowing, send a sample of the object in question to a laboratory for analysis. For your safety, don’t do this yourself. Instead, hire a professional who’s been specially trained to handle asbestos.

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