Once hailed as a premium for fireproofing and insulating, asbestos has become widely known as a dangerous set of fibrous minerals. When its fibers become airborne and are inhaled, asbestos can wreak havoc on a person’s lungs, heart and abdomen, causing mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer.
From the roof to floor, ceiling texture to pipe insulation, it’s possible you have asbestos in your home, especially if it was built in the 1970s or before – with asbestos decreasing due to a wider understanding of the material’s health risks.
Asbestos will not necessarily be considered an immediate danger in every form. Only when the material is friable, meaning its fibers can become airborne, does it run the risk of being inhaled by a person and causing internal damage.
“If you can crush it by hand, then in the normal wear and tear of the building or that material, then it’s possible for it to become airborne,” explains Darryl Watson, a certified industrial hygienist in the Atlanta area for ATC Group Services, an environmental consulting and industrial hygiene company.
Fibers that become airborne cannot only be breathed in by people and animals, but they also can linger for a long time, remaining dangerous even if they settle because moving air can easily pick them up again.
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“Asbestos fiber itself does not degrade, and it’s extremely aerodynamic. So even fibers that do eventually settle, any airflow would then re-entrain that fiber back into the air, so it can last for really extensive periods of time,” says Scott Compton, a certified asbestos inspector and co-founder of Hazardous Materials Assessment Inc. in San Leandro, California.
The best way to protect yourself from asbestos is to be aware of it in your home – and follow the proper procedure to monitor its durability or have it removed by a professional.
How Do You Know if Asbestos Is in Your Home?
It’s hard to narrow down where asbestos could be in your home. Since it was previously used so widely for a variety of products, just about any room in your home could have asbestos in some form.
One of the most common places to find asbestos in a home is popcorn ceiling, Compton says. Following that, common culprits are drywall surface texture and drywall joint compound, which is used like a plaster to cover up flaws in the wall. He adds, "Right up there on the top of the list are resilient flooring materials – things like floor tiles and vinyl flooring."
Compton adds duct insulation is also a common source, and while piping insulation is less common, it is more typically seen in homes built in the 1930s or before.
Recently renovated or built structures are less likely to contain asbestos, so verifying the installation date for textured ceilings or walls, vinyl flooring or even the roof will give you a better chance of avoiding asbestos, says Larry Wasson, a certified general inspector and owner of Affiliated Inspectors in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
“When I walk into a building, as an example, and see a textured ceiling, I’ll start asking about dates – trying to find out when it was done,” Wasson says. “So I use a benchmark of 1980 – if it was installed before 1980, then that texturing may contain asbestos. And depending on how it was installed, it could be potentially friable.”
While there are at-home asbestos-testing kits allowing you to take the sample and send it on to a lab, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends an accredited professional be used instead. When you’re not sure something is made of asbestos or if it’s potentially friable, a trained professional knows the procedure to avoid further contaminating the air.
What Should You Do When Your Home Has Asbestos?
Receiving a positive test result for asbestos in your home can be scary, but Watson says in many cases the asbestos can be contained or professionally abated to eliminate the chance of it becoming a bigger problem in the future.
“I consider asbestos to be a risk, not a threat. If I had a house and I found I had asbestos in the flooring, would I abandon the house? No. Would I deal with it? Yes,” Watson says.
Similar to lead abatement, removing asbestos should be done by certified professionals who are trained to properly seal off the environment and avoid spreading asbestos dust to other parts of the home.
But a heavy duty hazard zone isn’t always necessary when it comes to asbestos. Watson recalls an inspection he conducted in a school where they confirmed there was asbestos, but it didn’t require abatement since the location of the asbestos didn’t expose it to the general atmosphere within the school. “We intended to manage it in place," Watson says.
If you’ve discovered asbestos after disturbing it by accident, the best thing to do is stop what you’re doing and consult a professional. According to Compton, the next step could be vastly different depending on what you’ve disturbed and how severely.
“Some circumstances where they’ve disturbed a small section of a [heating pipe insulated with asbestos], for example. And the answer is set it aside and isolate it, and call the appropriate people to come pick it up for disposal,” Compton says. “I’ve found other circumstances where, say, an acoustic ceiling has been scraped, and as a result they get a widespread contamination of the entire facility.”
How Does Asbestos Change the Way I Renovate My Home?
Federal law is pretty stringent when it comes to verifying the presence of asbestos for the renovation or demolition of any commercial building, structure or residential property exceeding four units, under the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants. But when it comes to a single-family home, regulations vary and exemptions exist.
“Many of the local jurisdictions make a conditional exemption [for homeowners]. For example, a single-family homeowner doesn’t have to hire a consultant to do the inspection, as long as they do the sample collection themselves and get it to an accredited laboratory and have the material tested to make sure there’s no asbestos there before the disturbance,” Compton says.
Watson explains that Georgia regulations require an inspection before demolition. “Here in Georgia, anytime you tear a building down, you have to have an asbestos inspection … but that varies from state to state, and the enforcement varies from state to state,” he says.
In Oregon, for example, regulations on asbestos checks before commercial and large-scale residential demolition has been a source of debate in recent years. The Oregonian reports the state enacted a mandate in 2002 requiring all contractors to inspect for asbestos before demolition, but the requirement was retracted a year later. In 2015, a state bill passed reinstating the requirement, which went into effect at the start of this year.
She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.
Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.