You don’t want to find asbestos in your home. It’s not one of the 9 germiest places, and perhaps it’s not as widely-known as mold. However, this residential toxin can cause a variety of serious health problems. In this article we cover what asbestos is, why it’s so dangerous, where it’s located and how to remove it.
What is asbestos?
You can often find asbestos in exposed insulation. Image: Brasil2/Getty Images
“Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that can be mined from the ground in practically any part of the world,” according to John Ward at Mold Busters. “Composed of thin, dense fibers, asbestos is a desirable material in the construction industry for its ability to resist heat, fire and electricity.”
The period of 1920 to 1989, he says, was the peak era for asbestos use in residential construction. If your home dates from that period, the material may still lurk in a variety of places.
Why is it so dangerous? “If these tiny fibers are disturbed, they become airborne and can be easily inhaled,” Ward warns. “Even minimal exposure to asbestos can cause serious problems like persistent wheezing, coughing or difficulty breathing, growths in the throat and lungs, mesothelioma, and eventually lung cancer.” Some people who experience Sick Building Syndrome may actually suffer from exposure to asbestos.
Your chances of developing an asbestos-related disease vary, according to Cancer.gov. For example, it depends on the length, the amount and the source of the exposure. The size/shape/chemical makeup of the fibers are also factors. Other individual factors include whether you smoke and if you have a pre-existing lung disease.
Many countries ban asbestos. But the U.S. is one of the few industrialized nations which does not completely ban it, according to Asbestos.com. In fact, the site states that hundreds of U.S. consumer products contain it. The only stipulation is that it must represent less than 1% of the product.
Where is asbestos in your home?
This toxin can lurk in a number of places. Image: hikesterson/Getty Images
“Asbestos is often overlooked or hard to identify due to its incorporation into other household substances, like vermiculite attic insulation and cement,” according to E. Walsh, director of community outreach for Mesothelioma.com.
“Inside the home, it could be in your kitchen walls, bathroom vinyl flooring tiles, and old-fashioned popcorn ceilings,” Walsh says. “Other places that owners of older homes might not be aware asbestos could be lurking are light fixtures, paint and plaster, caulking to seal cracks and gaps, and window glaze to keep the draft out of a home during the colder months.”
He says that in the past, people used basements and attics more for storage than living quarters. Older basements and attics often include exposed materials like insulation. “Large and outdated appliances in the basement, like furnaces, water heaters, and pellet burning stoves should be updated ASAP; however they should undergo testing for asbestos prior to DIY removal,” according to Walsh.
Attics and basements sometimes contain asbestos. Image/Bilanol/Getty Images
You can spot it easily in your attic or basement. “Uncovered insulation made with vermiculite asbestos tends to have a grey-brown coloring and has a coarse, pebble-like texture,” Walsh says.
“Home owners should be wary of concrete walls and flooring as well: although this material is hard to break, exposure can happen through the smallest crack or gap,” he explains.
The exterior of your home
So, what should you look for outside of the home? “Old roofing shingles, siding and other material on the external of the house have all been linked to asbestos,” Walsh says. However, he explains that this isn’t necessarily a serious danger. “Unless the house is struck by some sort of natural disaster such as excessive rain storms, or high winds,” you may not need to worry about the exterior as much. However, if you’re rebuilding after a hurricane, it’s definitely a consideration.
Ward recommends extreme caution whenever you plan on buying a fixer upper home to renovate or when you’re doing maintenance work on an older home.
“Asbestos fibers can be released into the air during routine maintenance work, renovations, demolition, drilling, installation of electrical wiring, and so on, since these workers can damage asbestos-containing materials,” Ward says. “We actually have a horrifying case study of how a duct cleaning company tore contaminated duct wrap without even knowing it and exposed the homeowner to dangerous asbestos.”
How to remove asbestos
Breathing these fibers is hazardous to your health. Image: Science Photo Library/Getty Images
While DIYers like to take matters into their own hands, we don’t advise it here. Our two experts both warn against trying to remove asbestos yourself.
“Asbestos is a tricky substance due to the dangerous properties it holds,” Walsh says. “When fully intact, the dangers of asbestos exposure drastically decrease, but, when friable materials become broken, these microscopic fibers can break and become airborne.” If you breathe or ingest these small chalky pieces, he says you could contract some serious diseases. “They include lung cancer, asbestosis, or mesothelioma, which is a cancer that manifests over an extended period of time (20-50 years),” Walsh says.
Due to these serious risks, Walsh says you should never remove it from your home without an abatement professional.
First, call in a professional to properly test your home. “When calling a local inspector, it’s imperative to make sure they handle asbestos abatement, and some cases might require a specific asbestos abatement contractor,” Walsh says. “A professional will have the ability to safely monitor the issue and follow proper protocol to see that no one is exposed.”
Certified professionals can safely remove this dangerous material. Image: Samburt/Getty Images
If the test results come back positive, he recommends getting the substances out of your home. “This could potentially put a dent in your home renovation budget or timeline, however it will also save you and your family from unwanted health issues in the future,” Walsh says.
Leave it to the professionals
Ward agrees that homeowners should not test for the material or try to remove it themselves. “Any suspicious materials should be tested and removed by certified professionals.” Ward says that an asbestos professional will then set up a proper containment of the area. “These individuals will also have industry-grade personal protection equipment (respirator masks and full body suits) in order to minimize asbestos exposure,” he explains.
“After the contaminated materials have been removed, the area can be cleaned and HEPA vacuumed and the asbestos can be disposed of safely.” Ward says that the average homeowner risks exposure if they try to dispose of it.
When it comes to dealing with this hazardous construction material, leave the removal to the pros.
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