Asbestos is inescapable.  It is in our homes, our schools, in the water and soil.   You breathe it, drink it, and eat it every day.  It is feared, and rightly so… it has dangerous properties.  But fear must be molded into respect… asbestos is not a harbinger of Armageddon.  Knowledge, as always, is your sharpest sword… ignorance, your biggest danger.

What is asbestos, and why should I care?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral found in many parts of the world, mined primarily in Canada, South Africa and the United States. Nearly 3/4 of the world’s supply comes from Quebec, Canada.  It has been used since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans and was prized for its heat resistant properties.   Used to insulate the boilers of steam locomotives in the 1930’s, asbestos was not in widespread use until the 1940’s.  After World War II, the asbestos industry in the US grew dramatically.  According to the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA), in that time over 100,000 schools and 700,000 public and commercial buildings used asbestos for insulation, decoration and fireproofing.

Asbestos is literally everywhere!  According to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), more than 40% of the land area and much of the drinking water of the US contains some level of naturally occurring asbestos.

So why this 30 year love affair?  Asbestos has qualities that set it apart from any other material.  It is virtually indestructible; it does not decompose or decay; it is a poor conductor of electricity; it is resistant to heat, chemicals, and water.  Like the proverbial “bad penny”, you just can’t get rid of it!!   It exists in microscopic fibers of varying sizes. When mixed with other materials, it passes on its insulating properties while adding its fibrous strength.

Modern uses of asbestos… a “short” list

Building and construction:

Sprayed-on insulation and rustproofing for steel beams in large buildingsheat insulation for pipes, furnaces, boilers and ductwor
loose fill, blown and sprayed wall or ceiling insulation
ceiling tiles
asphalt floor tiles
the backing on vinyl sheet flooring
various adhesives for carpet, tile and general construction
wallboard and wallboard patching compounds
caulks, spackles and putties
heat resistant adhesive compounds such as furnace cement
concrete and Portland cement products (including cement wallboard)
cement fresh water and drain pipes
exterior siding on homes
fire doors; roofing shingles
paints and texture coatings on walls and ceilings
wiring insulation and fabrics.

Other non-construction uses are:

Automotive and elevator brake linings and clutch pads
high temperature gaskets
heat-proof gloves
fire blankets and protective clothing
stovetop heat resistant pads
paper products
and plastics.

You can now understand why asbestos became so widely used that it has touched all our lives.  The asbestos story, however,  has a dark side.

And now, the bad news…

Even the brightest clouds have a dark lining and, with asbestos, the dark lining was within the human lung.  The unique dangers of asbestos were ignored by the industry but were painfully obvious to those who worked in the mines or produced asbestos products.   Asbestos workers were exposed to large amounts of airborne asbestos and brought the dust into their homes for their families to inhale or ingest in their food.

We know now what they did not know then… that there are a number of potentially fatal diseases related to inhalation of asbestos fibers including mesothelioma, asbestosis, interstitial fibrosis, pneumoconiosis and lung cancer.   Though the connection is less strong, many physicians believe that cancers of the digestive system and other organs may be related to the ingestion of asbestos through contaminated food and water supplies.  Because the onset of these diseases can take up to 30 years, their connection to asbestos inhalation was painfully slow in coming.

Enter the lawyers and Federal regulation… stage left

The day of reckoning did finally arrive in the 1930’s with the first lawsuits.  Legal maneuvering continues into the present as more victims step forward to claim compensation for exposure to asbestos in buildings, in the construction/demolition industries and through the mishandling of asbestos-containing products.

The judicial frenzy reached its peak in 1986 when the EPA proposed an immediate ban on the use of asbestos in certain products and a total ban within 10 years.  Over time cooler heads prevailed… via the Supreme Court… as the studies revealed that a more conservative approach was necessary to both preserve public safety and to not lay waste to an entire industry that, in fact, provided a product both useful and safe when used in an intelligent manner.  Rather, the court ruled to overturn most of the EPA’s ban, and instead limited the ban to include 1) the development of new uses for asbestos and 2) the reintroduction of asbestos into industries where it had been replaced by other products.

Currently, most Federal regulation involves the handling and disposal of asbestos currently in use.  The asbestos industry in the US has been severely curtailed as manufacturers, suffering from the effects of extreme but necessary regulation,  have turned to less regulated alternative materials.  Asbestos-containing products are still manufactured and sold in the US, but manufacture, distribution and installation is strongly regulated by the EPA.  You need not worry that you will accidentally purchase a product containing asbestos… larger-than-life warnings must be conspicuously posted on them!

Virtually every school, business and government agency that has responsibility for a building has an asbestos policy.  Some colleges have Websites devoted to the asbestos problem at their schools, how they are coping with it, and guidelines for students if they may have had contact with asbestos-laden materials (such as if your roomy puts your head through the ceiling).

There is asbestos, and then there is asbestos… and all asbestos is not dangerous!

Asbestos a not a single, easily categorized substance such as carbon monoxide or radon.  It occurs in a number of different forms and the risks posed by them vary considerably… from minimal to severe. Crocidolite and amosite asbestos, known as amphibole asbestos, are the most dangerous forms.  Their fibers cling tenaciously to lung tissue while resisting the body’s natural self-cleaning processes.  This long term irritation to body tissue can lead to disease and death. Fortunately, these forms of asbestos have been banned for years though some may still exist in older homes.

Chrysotile asbestos, a less toxic form, comprises over 90% of all the asbestos used in the US.   This form of asbestos is not nearly as persistent in lung tissue and low level intermittent exposure is not considered to be a health risk to a healthy person.

In fact, both OSHA and the EPA concur that asbestos is not dangerous unless airborne.

Even if airborne, many studies of asbestos workers indicate that it takes more than a casual exposure to asbestos dust to cause disease… even over periods as long as 15 to 30 years!  Asbestos doesn’t “radiate” danger and its mere existence in low levels in your environment is not automatically cause for alarm.

Before you get yourself all wound up… is that weird stuff REALLY asbestos?

So here we are.  Or should I say, there you are.  In your home.  Starting a project.  Should you be concerned about asbestos?  What can you do to safeguard yourself and your home?  Should you hire a professional or do-it-yourself?

In the US, any home built after 1980 is very likely asbestos free.  And though an asbestos professional may be able to recognize asbestos, you probably can’t.   Sure, if your home if 50 years old and there is a solid whitish jacket over your furnace or heating pipes, you can bet it is probably asbestos.  But to know for sure, especially with manufactured materials like floor tiles, wallboard or siding, you need to have testing done.

How To Identify Materials That Contain Asbestos

You can’t tell whether a material contains asbestos simply by looking at it, unless it is labeled. If in doubt, treat the material as if it contains asbestos or have it sampled and analyzed by a qualified professional. A professional should take samples for analysis, since a professional knows what to look for, and because there may be an increased health risk if fibers are released. In fact, if done incorrectly, sampling can be more hazardous than leaving the material alone.

Taking samples yourself is not recommended. If you nevertheless choose to take the samples yourself, take care not to release asbestos fibers into the air or onto yourself. Material that is in good condition and will not be disturbed (by remodeling, for example) should be left alone. Only material that is damaged or will be disturbed should be sampled. Anyone who samples asbestos-containing materials should have as much information as possible on the handling of asbestos before sampling.

Oh no, keep me away from sharp objects…  I FOUND ASBESTOS IN MY HOME!! What now?

Calm down.  Just because asbestos has been used in your home does not necessarily mean you are at risk.  Remember what was said earlier… if the asbestos is solid and not releasing particles into the air, the consensus is that there is no discernable risk to health.  If there is a small release, the risk may also be minimal to nonexistent, though again testing is required to know for sure.

Handling asbestos is simple:  don’t handle it at all if possible!   In the early days of asbestos abatement, the conventional wisdom was that it should be completely removed from buildings and schools.  In classic overreaction, people were thinking of asbestos as if it was radioactive… even having it near their children was unacceptable.  The end result?  This helter skelter removal increased the problem as the dangerous hard-to-control asbestos dust got into literally everything.   Modern techniques generally call for sealing or encapsulating the asbestos so that it cannot release fibers into the atmosphere.  Only when the asbestos cannot be sealed, or in the cases of renovation or demolition, is removal considered a reasonable option.

Is asbestos removal a job for the do-it-yourselfer?

I dread saying this… but no.  Current federal regulations have effectively made do-it-yourself asbestos removal impossible to do legally, which means… hiring a professional.

  • Get a thorough written description of the work to be performed.  This is vital for future reference if there are problems or misunderstandings.  This will give you a realistic way to compare quotes and methodologies from different contractors.
  • Get more than one opinion and quote.  One contractor  may determine that sealing the asbestos is preferred, while another may want to completely remove it!  Remember… sealing is the method of choice.  Removal should only be done when sealing is illegal, impractical or impossible.

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