Angie's LIST Guide to
Asbestos

The name asbestos refers to a group of minerals composed of actinolite, amosite, anthophyllite, chrysotile, crocidolite and tremolite. Asbestos is useful for its strengthening, insulating and heat-resistant qualities. It was used in construction from the 1940s to the late 1970s, when its health risks became widely known.
 

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An asbestos siding abatement was performed on this house. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Felicia T.)
An asbestos siding abatement was performed on this house. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Felicia T.)
 
 
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Products containing asbestos

While most products manufactured today are free of asbestos, many insulation materials and construction products used before the late 1970s contained asbestos. In homes built before 1980, asbestos was often used in attics, basements and roofs. Fluffy gray or white asbestos functioned as heat and acoustical insulation in and around sewer and water pipes, ducts, electrical wiring, stovepipe rings, linoleum and vinyl flooring, shingles and acoustic tiles. It was placed in areas occupied by artificial fireplaces, furnaces, boilers and incinerators.

Asbestos was also mixed into materials, meaning it cannot be seen by someone looking for it. Asbestos was mixed into siding, cement, plaster, stucco, caulking, joint compounds and textured paints.

Even newer homes may contain asbestos. Some materials with trace amounts of asbestos are still sold and used. The asbestos fibers in these products generally remain tightly bound in the materials. These products include floor tile, mastic adhesive and roofing tar.

Products usually bear labels indicating asbestos content when asbestos exceeds 1 percent of the material. Homeowners should realize that lack of asbestos labeling does not mean asbestos is not present. Only lab analysis or manufacturer certification guarantees that material is asbestos-free.

Homeowners should note that older appliances opened up for repair may release asbestos fibers. Even recently made barbecue mitts, protective aprons and gloves may contain asbestos. These items should be discarded when damaged.

Health risks

Though it was known in the early 1900s that inhaling asbestos particles had led to the deaths of miners, it was not until the 1970s that public health officials began warning of the risk of asbestos exposure in homes and workplaces.

Asbesto-based building materials are not hazardous when they remain intact and undisturbed, but broken during remodeling or repair work, fibers from asbestos can be released into the surrounding air. This is why the focus has been on friable asbestos.  “Friable” means the material crumbles easily and breaks down into small particles that could be inhaled.  Widely used products containing friable asbestos include insulation, acoustical plaster, paper products and spackling compound.

Products made from “non-friable” asbestos are tightly bound and do not easily release particles. Examples of non-friable materials include siding, floor tiles and roofing products.  These can still be a risk, such as hen a non-friable material is sawed or sanded, thereby releasing small particles.

When asbestos fibers are inhaled and reach the lung’s deep air passages, they can cause serious damage. Oral ingestion of asbestos may be implicated in cancers of the larynx, esophagus, oral cavity, colon, stomach and kidney.

According to the National Cancer Institute, nearly everyone is exposed to small amounts of asbestos in the water, air and soil.  People rarely become sick through this type of exposure. Those who develop health problems have generally been exposed to asbestos on a regular basis, usually through their jobs.  Not everyone who is exposed to asbestos will get sick, and those who do may not experience symptoms for decades.

Medical knowledge of the health effects of asbestos has come from long-term studies of people exposed in the workplace. Asbestos workers often develop “asbestosis,” an increase of scar tissue in the lungs causing the heart and lungs to provide inadequate levels of oxygen to the body. This serious disease develops 20 to 30 years after asbestos exposure.

Asbestos workers have also been shown to have an increased risk of developing mesothelioma and cancer, both generally fatal. The two diseases may show up 20 to 50 years following exposure. The younger a person is at the time of asbestos inhalation, the greater the chances of developing mesothelioma.

Asbestos mitigation services

Asbestos is removed from about 100 feet of water pipes in this basement. (Photo courtesy of Karen Boyko)
Asbestos is removed from about 100 feet of water pipes in this basement. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Karen B.)

Because materials containing friable asbestos can be found in so many homes and buildings erected in the mid-20th Century, an industry of asbestos mitigation professionals has emerged.  These experts are trained to inspect homes for asbestos, take samples and judge the condition of asbestos-containing materials.  They provide homeowners with advice regarding correction and recommend qualified correction contractors. Some companies offer testing as well as assessment and correction. The Environmental Protection Agency advises homeowners to avoid hiring a tester and correction contractor from the same company to avoid conflict of interest.

The federal government, as well as some local and state governments, provides training courses for asbestos professionals. When hiring, homeowners should ask for proof of EPA-approved training or state training. Local and state health departments may be able to provide listings of licensed professionals.

Homeowners should ask for references and get several estimates before hiring an asbestos mitigation company.  Search the Angie’s List category “asbestos removal” to find companies in your city who have received top ratings from past customers.

When an asbestos professional is inspecting your home, make sure he or she collects samples for lab analysis. If asbestos is found, a written description of location, extent of the problem and recommended treatment should be provided.

Fiber containment

When work is being done in an area containing asbestos, the affected area is sealed off from the rest of the home with duct tape and plastic sheeting, and the air conditioning and heating systems are turned off. Home residents and pets are kept from the area until the project is complete.

Professionals use a hand sprayer to wet asbestos material and prevent fibers from becoming airborne during removal. They clean up with wet sponges and mops or high-efficiency vacuums designed to capture small particles.  All asbestos-containing materials are carefully sealed in secure plastic bags.

Once asbestos treatment is complete, air sampling is carried out to determine that fewer than 0.01 fibers per cubic centimeter remain in the air. Higher levels call for additional cleaning and sampling. When sampling demonstrates acceptable air levels, the area is safe for occupancy.

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