If you currently live in a home or are planning on moving into one with any part constructed before 1980, it is a good bet that there are asbestos-containing materials in the structure. If you have watched television at all in the past twenty years then I’m sure you’ve seen the scary commercials which talk about the risks of asbestos exposure – mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other very harsh lung diseases. Fortunately, you are usually not at risk in your home, and these commercials target people who worked around asbestos on a daily basis (think dock workers, certain military, pipefitters, etc.).
The only absolutely surefire way to avoid asbestos entirely in your house is to build a new one and verify that each tradesman is not using any asbestos-containing materials. In the past it was frequently found in insulation, drywall, flooring, roofing, and even many home appliances, so you would need to keep a close eye on much of the work. It would be an overreaction however to build a new home just because you’re afraid of asbestos exposure. The thing to keep in mind is that as long as the suspect material is in good condition and isn’t going to be disturbed, you are really not at risk for any of the dangers caused by exposure to asbestos.
In this article we’ll cover how to determine if your house has asbestos in it, what steps you should take to protect your family if you find any suspect materials, and provide some simple, bottom-line rules to keep in mind. The risks of asbestos are real and using this guidance will help you and your family rest easy knowing that those risks are safely mitigated.
What is Asbestos and How Do You Identify It?
The term “asbestos” refers to a set of silicate fibers which are mined from the earth. These fibers had a wide variety of industrial and construction applications due to being strong, flexible, fire-resistant, and relatively cheap. Once hailed as do-it-all material, the ill effects on health started to be recognized fairly quickly when workers in asbestos mines had incredibly high rates of fatal lung diseases.
Asbestos is totally safe in a dormant, undisturbed state as long as it is left untouched. It becomes dangerous when the fibers are kicked up into the air that you breathe during renovation or removal. If the fibers are inhaled then they will settle in the tissues of the lungs and begin to aggravate and scar them. If this happens frequently and/or in large quantities the affected individual may begin to experience some of the symptoms and diseases that the commercials talk about. While it is safe in the majority of applications, the consequences of asbestos exposure are severe and can be fatal – take them extremely seriously.
Identifying asbestos is a bit of a guessing game until you take a sample and have it tested by an officially licensed laboratory. The rule of thumb is to treat any material you are suspicious of like it contains asbestos – do not touch it or disturb it in any way. Luckily, this test is inexpensive and has a short turnaround time. The procedure involves taking a small portion of the material in question, bagging it and labeling with the date and address, and sending it to a national testing lab via a local company. You will hear back within a week or so and get a simple “yes or no” report on each material you sent in. This is the only guaranteed way to determine if a material in your house contains asbestos.
Steps to Take if You Find Asbestos at Home
Once your test comes back, it is time to review the results. If the tests are negative then it is safe to handle them or remove the materials. If the tests come back positive then it is time to think about which course of action you’d like to take. Asbestos abatement can be an expensive operation because there is a lot of training for crews, site protection, and methodology for proper disposal that needs to happen for a successful project. You should have a good reason for why the material needs to be disturbed.
You only need to be concerned with asbestos-containing materials in your home under two conditions: if you are planning on remodeling or disturbing the home with some sort of construction, or if the material is crumbling or otherwise in a state of disrepair. The amount of traffic an area with asbestos goes through is also important to consider when determining how to proceed. If the insulation in your attic for example contains asbestos but you have zero plans for construction or storage up there, it really is best to leave it alone. If the floor tiles are crumbling to pieces in your children’s future playroom however, that would be a prime example of when to take action and plan an abatement.
Professional remodeling contractors will never put your family or their crews at risk during a renovation which would potentially disturb any asbestos products. The long-term health risks are just not worth circumventing the abatement process. Your contractor should usually have a good idea of what materials contain it and have everything in the work zone tested and abated before the renovation work gets underway. If your remodeling contractor comes in and starts performing demolition without testing for asbestos, that could be a warning sign they are inexperienced or careless and they may be putting everyone in the home at increased risk.
Here’s a brief checklist to guide you through the entire process and protect your family:
- Identify any suspect materials in your home that you believe may contain asbestos
- Contact a licensed and insured testing contractor to sample the materials and safely protect the site until the results can be obtained
- Keep your family away from any rooms with the material in questions until results are in
- Go over the testing results with your company and decide if you need to have an abatement performed or if it will be fine as-is
- If you go through with an abatement due to a construction project or because the material was in a high-traffic area, make sure to hire a trusted firm with good reviews and credentials
The Bottom Line for Protecting Your Family from Asbestos
Following a few simple rules will keep your family safe from asbestos exposure in all but the most extenuating circumstances. Assume that any material you suspect contains asbestos does so and treat it with respect. Do not touch, try to remove, cut, or otherwise disturb any suspect material as this can throw the fibers into your home’s air where they are at their most dangerous. Have a professional, trained, accredited abatement firm handle the sampling and testing of the material(s) you plan to interact with. If a test comes back positive for asbestos, contract the trusted firm that did the testing to perform the abatement and removal so you are positive your home is safe going forward.
The rule of thumb is to assume that any material, especially if the house was built in the Seventies or earlier, does contain asbestos. Treating it with respect and caution and keeping every member of your family including adults, kids, and pets away from it is the best practice.