Since it was revealed to be a potentially dangerous carcinogen in the 1970s, millions of homeowners have feared the possible discovery of asbestos in their homes. Whether it’s concern over cancer or worries about expensive removal bills, asbestos remains a primary area of concern for homeowners all over the country.
In the case of asbestos, what you don’t know potentially could hurt you, your family members and your pocketbook. What does the average homeowner need to know about this common building material, its health effects and how to safely remove it from their home?
In This Section
- What Is Asbestos?
- How to Identify Asbestos
- Why Is Asbestos Dangerous?
- Asbestos Laws & Regulations
- Common Methods of Exposure
- Health Signs of Asbestos Exposure
- How Does Asbestos Removal Work?
- How to Hire a Removal Specialist
- How to Minimize Asbestos Exposure
- Homeowner Do’s and Don’ts
What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring substance that is frequently used in the manufacture of many types of products, including building materials, insulation, paper, plastic and many more. It gained favor in the manufacture of these products because of its powerful fireproofing properties, as asbestos is extremely heat-resistant.
There are several types of asbestos, though they all are generally referred to under the umbrella term “asbestos.” The term refers to several types of natural minerals that have the same fibrous nature that allows them to be pulled into a familiar soft consistency.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognizes two main types of asbestos, into which a total of six specific minerals are classified:
Chrysotile: Commonly referred to as “white asbestos,” chrysolite is the most commonly used type of asbestos, accounting for the vast majority of all asbestos uncovered in the U.S. Serpentine asbestos minerals have a layered-type structure. The most popular uses of chrysotile include:
- Brake pads
- Flexible duct connectors
- Interior fire doors
Amphiboles were used in many products, including ceiling tiles, insulating board, cement sheets, insulation, cigarettes, brake pads and artificial snow. The use of these asbestos types has generally been banned since at least the 1980s. Amphibole asbestos types include:
- Crocidolite (riebeckite)
- Amosite (cummingtonite-grunerite)
Natural deposits of asbestos minerals still exist all over the world, and some types of asbestos are still being used to make various products. Russia, China and Kazakhstan are the main exporters of asbestos today. While the U.S. government official identifies and regulates six types of asbestos, there may well be undiscovered types of the mineral that could have negative human health effects.
Asbestos also has been known to contaminate other mineral products, such as talc and vermiculite, though federal regulations have required strict controls in talc production to prevent exposure and multiple lawsuits have focused on asbestos contamination of talc-based products.
How to Identify Asbestos
Asbestos is not fully banned in the United States, and many products that contain asbestos are widely available, including pipeline wraps, cement pipes, disk brake pads, roof coatings, vinyl floor tiles and more. But generally, homeowners whose homes were constructed before the 1980s should be the most concerned about the potential for asbestos to be lurking in their homes.
Generally, asbestos cannot be identified on sight, unless a label can be found that reveals a product contains asbestos. Short of that, the only way to identify asbestos is to have a sample tested.
If you’re purchasing or considering major remodeling projects in a home that was built before the 1980s, it may be wise to have the home inspected by an accredited asbestos specialist. It’s not wise to take samples yourself of suspicious materials because disturbing asbestos and releasing its fibers into the air is more dangerous than simply leaving it alone.
If your home has crumbling drywall or insulation, even if you’re not planning to do any work, it’s wise to have those materials tested for asbestos because if they are in an active state of falling apart, it won’t be possible to leave them be.
Why Is Asbestos Dangerous?
Undisturbed asbestos is generally not a concern, but when the material is moved, destroyed or otherwise disturbed and its fibers are spread into the air, those fibers are easily inhaled into the lungs, and asbestos exposure has been linked to several serious health problems, including multiple types of cancer. Asbestos is connected to asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma and immune system disruption, among other health conditions.
Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease that’s caused by long-term, repeated exposure to asbestos fibers. The disease most often appears after many years of prolonged exposure (up to 40 years after exposure, in some cases), and it causes scarring of lung tissue, which creates stiffness in the lungs and disrupts the normal breathing process. There is no treatment that can undo the lung damage asbestosis creates, but treatment options can slow the progression of the disease and alleviate some symptoms.
Lung cancer has been observed in many former asbestos workers after at least 15 years from the asbestos exposure point. Workers who also smoke are at a much higher risk, but asbestos exposure itself has been connected to thousands of cases of lung cancer.
Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma, which is a type of cancer that affects the thin linings of organs in the chest and abdomen. The time between exposure and mesothelioma diagnosis is usually at least 30 years. Mesothelioma is a relatively rare form of cancer, with about 3,000 new cases diagnosed each year, but for cases of malignant mesothelioma of the lungs detected in the earliest stages, the five-year survival rate is only about 18%.
Not every person who comes into contact with asbestos will develop health problems, but it’s important to note that once asbestos fibers have been inhaled into the lungs, those fibers cannot be removed and that the amount of fiber in the air is a key factor in the development of asbestos-related diseases. That’s why the individuals at greatest risk of serious health effects from asbestos exposure are people who worked with asbestos before the 1980s. That includes miners, construction workers, electricians, railroad workers and insulation removers.
Asbestos Laws & Regulations
The United States is one of only a few wealthy nations where asbestos has not been completely banned outright. There was an attempt by the EPA to ban the substance in the late 1980s, but the effort was successfully defeated by asbestos injury supporters. The rule would have phased out and eventually totally halted the use of asbestos in the U.S.
Many consumer products in the U.S. today can still contain varying amounts of asbestos, though the uses must conform to EPA regulations that govern product categories in which items can contain asbestos as well as preventing any new uses of the mineral. There are only five products for which asbestos is completely banned — flooring felt, rollboard and corrugated, commercial or specialty paper. This means that any other product that was being made with asbestos before 1989 still can be, though most companies have phased out their use of asbestos.
A proposed new EPA rule could potentially impact the use of asbestos in a wide range of products in which the material isn’t commonly used. The Significant New Use Rule says that any discontinued legal use of asbestos can’t be revived without a review from the EPA. In other words, the companies that voluntarily removed asbestos from their products can’t begin using it again without notifying the agency. It’s important to note that this rule doesn’t expand the current legal uses for asbestos, but may activists had hoped the agency would outright ban the mineral.
More than 60 countries have banned the use of asbestos, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, France, Japan and many others. Washington and California both have banned the use of asbestos in the production of vehicle brake systems.
Common Methods of Exposure
While it’s true that the biggest health risk factor related to asbestos exposure is coming into contact with the substance as part of your job, it is still possible for everyday homeowners to encounter and potentially be exposed to asbestos. Here is a look at some of the most common exposure methods for modern homeowners:
Removing roof shingles or siding
Many roofing shingles and siding are made of asbestos cement, and disturbing the materials can release asbestos fibers into the air.
Homes constructed before the 1950s are more likely to have insulation that’s made of asbestos. After the 1950s, fiberglass insulation became more common, so homes with original insulation are more likely to have asbestos insulation.
Taking down walls, removing popcorn ceiling or expanding doorways or openings
Textured paint and joint compound used on walls and ceilings commonly contained asbestos prior to the 1970s, so exposing walls or ceilings or removing popcorn ceiling texture could release asbestos into the air.
Removing vinyl floor tiles
Asbestos was a very popular material in the production of vinyl floor tiles installed in homes from the 1920s to the 1960s, though they were in wide use up to the 1980s. Removal of these tiles can cause asbestos fibers to spread into the air, but in many cases, it’s possible to install new flooring over the top of the old tiles without disturbing the asbestos.
Replacing old plumbing
Older homes commonly have hot-water pipes that are coated in an asbestos insulation or may be covered with asbestos blankets or tape. Cutting the material to get access to the metal pipe inside can release fibers into the air.
Health Signs of Asbestos Exposure
The signs of asbestos exposure often don’t become apparent for decades. For instance, asbestos workers who develop mesothelioma often have no symptoms for 30-40 years. So the signs of potential asbestos-related health problems can seem quite disconnected from the asbestos exposure itself because of the passage of time.
Because asbestos most often affects the lungs, respiratory-related symptoms will often be the most apparent signs. These can include:
- Shortness of breath
- Hoarse voice
- Chest pain or tightness
- Persistent cough
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Difficulty swallowing
- Bloody cough
Asbestosis, lung cancer and pleural mesothelioma all affect the lungs and respiratory system, but it’s also possible to develop mesothelioma in the lining of the abdomen. This is referred to as peritoneal mesothelioma, and the main exposure method is from ingestion of asbestos fibers. Signs include:
- Abdominal distention
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Feeling of fullness
- Night sweats
- Nausea or vomiting
- Unexplained weight loss
The good news is that minor, temporary exposure to asbestos is rarely associated with serious health problems, though the impact of asbestos exposure accumulates, meaning several short-term exposures could eventually add up to have a big impact.
Also, the more dust or material in the air, the more likely it is that potentially harmful exposure has occurred, though the health effects probably won’t become apparent for years. There are no immediate physical signs that point to a problematic asbestos exposure because the particles are carried in the air and can’t be seen with the naked eye.
How Does Asbestos Removal Work?
Most homeowners are better off leaving asbestos-containing materials in place because disturbing the products is what creates the health risk. However, there are many cases in which that isn’t possible or in which it simply would be easier to remove the potential for exposure altogether.
In these cases, homeowners are advised by the EPA to hire a professional removal specialist to handle the entire process from start to finish. Though it should be noted that homeowners are not legally required to do so, and it’s permitted for people to remove asbestos from their own homes if they choose to. However, removing asbestos on your own precludes you from certifying for any future residents or buyers of your home that asbestos removal and abatement has been done, and it exposes you to the risk of asbestos-related health problems. Also, self-removal of asbestos may be banned by your county, city or state.
In most cases, there are a few steps that professional asbestos specialists will take to safely remove asbestos from a home:
- Setting up safety barriers: Asbestos abatement technicians will determine the area or areas of the home that will be impacted and will take steps to ensure that during the removal process, no fibers are able to travel to other areas of the home. This could include disabling HVAC systems, sealing air ducts and covering surfaces in plastic to protect them from dust.
- Removal: Once a safety zone has been established, workers wearing protective equipment and using personal air monitors will remove any materials containing asbestos. If necessary, they’ll use hand tools like crow bars to aid in this process. All materials that are known or suspected to contain asbestos will be removed. Those materials will be placed into waste bags that will then be sealed and stored in a trash bin or other container that has a protective lining.
- Cleanup: After all asbestos materials have been removed and safely disposed of, all areas where abatement took place will be wiped down and then cleaned with a vacuum using a HEPA filter. Once a sufficient number of cleanings have removed any sign of visible materials from all areas and surfaces, samples of the air and any remaining surfaces will be done to verify there is no asbestos present.
It’s also possible to seal or enclose items for which complete removal is not practical or possible. For instance, many homeowners choose to cover water pipes that are encased in asbestos insulation. In this case, the abatement company would place a protective wrap around the exposed insulation to prevent any asbestos fibers from being released. Again, as with asbestos removal, repair should be done by a trained professional.
How to Hire a Removal Specialist
Keep in mind that your community may have specific rules regarding hiring an asbestos removal specialist or asbestos abatement technician, so be sure to consult all local ordinances regarding asbestos before hiring anybody.
Before hiring someone to remove or repair the asbestos materials in your home, you should first consult with an independent asbestos inspector who will conduct a visual examination of your home and collect any necessary samples to verify where asbestos is present. That inspector should always be an independent professional who is not connected to or working for any removal or abatement companies. That way, you know their analysis and recommendations will be free of conflict of interest.
If your inspector does recommend asbestos abatement, you should research local abatement companies, ensuring they have completed training as well as verifying that they have a track record of good business practices. This means checking out reviews and seeing what complaints, if any, previous customers have made.
Once you’ve made your choice and agreed on a price, be sure to get in writing a specific plan regarding the extent of work to be done and ensuring that it will be done to local, state and federal regulations regarding asbestos abatement. And once the job is over, the company should provide you with a written certification that all work was done to those standards.
How to Minimize Asbestos Exposure
Few asbestos-containing materials can be identified by the average person using just their eyes. The only way to be 100% sure whether a surface or object was made with asbestos is to have a sample tested. However, there are a few smart practices that can help minimize your risk of exposure.
First things first: If you’re ever in doubt, do not disturb the item in question. Remember that in order for asbestos fibers to be released into the air, something must be done to disturb them. That means not drilling, hammering, cutting, breaking, moving or damaging the item.
Limiting your exposure could potentially mean taking a bit longer to purchase a home. Many homeowners would rather just avoid any future hassles that asbestos can cause, so if you’re purchasing a new home and are concerned about asbestos, you can have a special asbestos inspection done that can identify potential problem areas. That could allow you to adjust the price you offer or avoid the house entirely.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, and although it’s no longer being mined in North America, it may be possible to come into contact with it, especially if you live in the West, where there are known deposits of asbestos. In these areas of the country, it may be advisable to take precautions like wetting the ground before gardening, driving slowly or avoiding unpaved roads and covering asbestos-containing soil with other landscape materials.
Homeowner Do’s and Don’ts
Because asbestos was so widespread at one time, it’s virtually impossible to completely avoid it, even in your own home. So what’s a homeowner to do?
- Do inspect every possible inch of your home, including the attic and plumbing, before you buy or move in.
- Don’t panic if asbestos is present.
- Do take precautions to avoid disturbing or damaging any materials or surfaces containing asbestos.
- Don’t dust or vacuum debris that might have asbestos in it.
- Don’t use abrasive brushes or pads to clean or otherwise treat any flooring that was made with asbestos.
- Do have any removal or repair of asbestos-containing items completed by a professional.
- Do keep activities to a minimum in any areas of the home that are known or suspected to contain asbestos.
- Don’t track debris into the house that may contain asbestos.
- Do keep in mind that while it’s not possible to see asbestos, there are several products that are common culprits — 9-inch floor tile, popcorn ceilings, hot-water pipe insulation, attic insulation, drywall and others. Use common sense to guide your decisions; this includes keeping in mind the age of the home and the building practices common at the time.
There’s no doubt that asbestos is a scary word for any homeowner, and it’s easy to understand why. The potential health hazards this mineral can cause — asbestosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer and more — are enough to make anybody nervous with the very mention of the word. But with some simple common sense, it’s usually possible to avoid asbestos exposure altogether, and for those who can’t, there are lots of trained professionals who can help ensure your home is a safe place.
- State Asbestos Abatement Programs: https://www.epa.gov/asbestos/state-asbestos-contacts
- Approved Asbestos Testing Labs: https://www-s.nist.gov/niws/index.cfm?event=directory.search#no-back
- EPA Regulations Related to Asbestos: https://www.epa.gov/asbestos/epa-actions-protect-public-exposure-asbestos
- Clayton & Clayton: Asbestos Home Safety: https://claytonandclayton.com/home-asbestos-safety.php