Asbestos can be found in many building materials, including those in our homes, offices and daycare centers. The sprayed on ceiling in your living room? The floor tile in your kitchen? Both may contain asbestos. Building products that may contain asbestos include resilient floor tiles, the backing on vinyl sheet flooring, and adhesives used to install floor tile; paper tape and blankets used to insulate steam pipes, boilers and furnace ducts; cement sheet, millboard and paper used as insulation around furnaces and wood burning stoves; door gaskets used in furnaces, wood stoves and coal stoves; soundproofing or decorative material sprayed on ceilings and walls; compounds used for patching and joints; textured paints; and cement roofing, shingles and siding.
Many people assume that asbestos products are banned, but they aren’t, even though at least 30 other countries have banned asbestos. The EPA’s ban of most asbestos containing products was thrown out by a court, and was one of the most spectacular failures of our chemical regulation law, the Toxic Substances Control Act (“TSCA”). In 2001, approximately 29 million pounds of asbestos was used to manufacture products in the United States. However, individual product uses of asbestos have been controlled.
Exposure to asbestos fibers causes adverse health risks. Asbestos kills an estimated 10,000 people in the U.S. each year. The three major health effects associated with exposure to asbestos fibers are asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. Children are potentially more at risk of suffering adverse health effects of asbestos exposure.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral fiber. The term “asbestos” actually refers to a number of naturally occurring, fibrous silicate materials, including chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, tremolite, actinolite and anthophyllite. These fibers provide a number of desirable properties, including heat insulation, fire resistance and strength.
Asbestos poses a health problem because of its physical characteristics, as opposed to its chemical properties. Asbestos fibers are long, microscopically thin fibers – so thin you can’t see them – and light, so they remain suspended in the air and float from room to room once released.
The risk of exposure for most of us comes from building products, insulation materials and consumer products that may have been used or found in our homes.
Asbestos building products and insulation materials were widely used up until the late 1970s. The most common and significant uses of asbestos in the home was banned in the 1970s, so homes built before 1978 are the ones most at risk.
Don’t panic though – a risk only exists if the asbestos is friable (can be crumbled with hand pressure), or if you are cutting into or removing such materials. Asbestos just being present in your home isn’t a problem – only it is friable or if it is disturbed. Asbestos is generally combined with other materials. As long as the materials remain bonded, the asbestos fibers are not released. If you have asbestos containing building materials in your home, and they are in good condition, just leave them be.
If the material is deteriorating, torn, or worn, then you need to either repair or remove it. The EPA acknowledges that slightly damaged material may be best dealt with by not touching or disturbing the material and limiting access1. But, if the material is more than slightly damaged, or cannot be dealt with by limiting access and not touching, then you need to repair or remove it.
If you are going to be remodeling or making changes to your home that could disturb asbestos containing materials, then you may need professional help. Unless it is labeled, you won’t be able to tell whether a material contains asbestos. You can’t sample the material yourself, since sampling can itself release asbestos fibers.
Contaminated vermiculite can be another source of asbestos. Vermiculite has been used in construction and consumer materials, including loose-fill insulation, acoustic finishes, spray-on insulation, concrete mixes for swimming pools, and agricultural and horticultural products (e.g., potting mixes and soil conditioners).
What are some simple steps you can do to reduce exposure?
Inspect your home. If you have an older home, then you may want to inspect it to indentify suspect materials. If you still have your home inspection report from when you purchased the home (if you had one), then it may identify suspect materials.
Let it be. If the material is in good condition, let it be.
Don’t disturb it. Make sure you don’t cut, saw, sand, drill holes in or otherwise disturb asbestos containing building materials.
Repair it. If the material is not in good condition, then you probably need to repair it or remove it. Repairing it usually involves either sealing or enclosing the asbestos material. Sealing the asbestos material involves using a sealant that binds the asbestos fibers together or coats the fibers so that they cannot be released. Covering the asbestos material usually involves preventing the release of asbestos fibers by putting something over it, like a protective wrap over insulated piping or new flooring over asbestos containing floor tiles. Of course, repairing it means that that asbestos fiber remains in place. If you ever remodel or replace the material containing asbestos, you will need to take further action. A professional trained in handling asbestos should be used even for minor repairs because a risk of exposure exists and improper handling can result in a hazard where none existed before.
Remove it. Removal of the asbestos containing material will eliminate the risk if the removal is done properly. Make sure you use a professional trained in asbestos handling. Removal can be expensive and hazardous.
1U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Asbestos in Your Home, found at http://www.epa.gov/asbestos/pubs/ashome.html#2.