Many homes built before 1980 contain asbestos, a heat-resistant fibrous mineral found in floor and ceiling tiles, roof shingles and flashing, siding and certain types of insulation.
We now know that exposure to asbestos fibers can lead to an increased risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma. Although asbestos-containing products can still legally be manufactured, imported, processed and distributed in the United States, the use of asbestos has declined significantly in recent decades, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The good news is that simply living in a home in which asbestos exists is not dangerous. However, if asbestos materials are disturbed — during a remodel, for example — asbestos fibers may be released into the air. The risk of disease increases if those fibers are inhaled.
Friable vs. non-friable
Asbestos-containing materials are categorized as friable or non-friable. These terms indicate how readily they may release asbestos fibers when disturbed.
Friable materials can be easily crumbled. If friable asbestos material is damaged or disturbed, it presents an inhalation risk because the fibers can be released into the air easily. Any asbestos-containing material can become friable.
In non-friable asbestos products, the asbestos fibers are bound into the product and are not so easily released. These products present a risk only when they’re disturbed, by sanding or cutting for instance. Vinyl asbestos floor tiles and acoustic ceiling tiles that are in good shape are examples of non-friable asbestos products. If those tiles would begin to deteriorate, they could become friable.
How do I know if I have asbestos?
You can’t tell whether a product contains asbestos simply by looking at it. When in doubt, proceed with caution and leave the material alone.
If you are planning a remodel or your home has damaged building materials such as failing drywall, you should have your home tested by a trained and accredited asbestos professional who will take samples for analysis. If it’s determined you have asbestos in your home, the inspector will help you understand test results and provide information about next steps: repairing or removing.
What’s involved in repair?
With any type of repair, the asbestos material stays in place and is either sealed or covered.
Sealing (also referred to as encapsulation) involves using a sealant to coat the asbestos material so that toxic fibers are not released. Covering (also known as enclosure) involves placing something over or around the material that contains asbestos to prevent release of fibers. Exposed insulated piping, for example, may be covered with a protective wrap.
Can I remove my own asbestos?
There is no federal mandate concerning accreditation for those who inspect, repair or remove asbestos in residential settings. Twenty-five states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have Occupational Safety and Health Administration-approved standards and enforcement policies. In many of those states, your only legal options for having asbestos removed from your home are to hire a certified abatement contractor or to do the work yourself. These laws prohibit you from hiring anyone other than a certified asbestos contractor to perform asbestos removal work. Family members and friends can help, as long as they’re not paid. Be sure to check with your city and state to learn about requirements, including permitting and waiting periods, where you live.
It should also be noted that, while most states allow DIY-asbestos removal from private residences, most health and environmental organizations caution that it can be a dangerous proposition.
What should I know about hiring an asbestos pro?
Avoid a conflict of interest by hiring a testing professional who is not associated with a firm that does asbestos abatement.
Insist that workers provide current proof of training and accreditation. Also check with local pollution control boards, the local agency responsible for worker safety and the Better Business Bureau to see whether the company has any safety violations or legal action filed against it.
What happens during abatement?
Those doing the actual removal will protect themselves from breathing or spreading asbestos fibers by wearing appropriate respirators, disposable coveralls, disposable gloves and boots. The work area will be isolated from the rest of the house using plastic sheeting and duct tape, and the heating or air-conditioning system should be shut down to prevent further distribution of asbestos fibers.
Before, during and after removal, asbestos materials should be thoroughly saturated with water in order to keep asbestos fibers out of the air. The asbestos-laden materials — along with all disposable equipment and clothing used in the job — will be placed inside leak-proof plastic bags. The sealed bags should then be placed in cardboard boxes to prevent them from breaking open, and they’ll be disposed of at a permitted landfill. The area from which asbestos was removed should also be thoroughly cleaned with wet mops, wet rags, sponges and high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) vacuum cleaners. Some removal firms will retest for asbestos when the job is complete. If yours doesn’t, you may want to invest in a new test yourself.