Asbestos, an innocuous-looking mineral once used in hundreds of building products, is an especially insidious carcinogen. Not only can it be difficult to spot asbestos-containing products in the home, but nearly all US homes and commercial buildings built before 1981 do contain some of this toxin. You only have to talk to the few survivors of asbestosis to realize just how dangerous asbestos can be.
The good news is that the risk of contracting malignant mesothelioma, the most serious of the diseases associated with asbestos exposure, is very low, even for people who live in homes where asbestos is present but hidden in places like attic insulation, under vinyl sheet flooring, or in roof shingles. In these cases, as long as it is intact and left alone, asbestos may never cause a problem.
The risk rises when asbestos begins to deteriorate into dust and homeowners come in contact with that dust, as may happen during a renovation or remodeling project. Even drilling or sanding in the presence of asbestos can be dangerous. Once inhaled, the fibers in asbestos dust stay in the body indefinitely, potentially triggering a cascade of physiological responses that can result in mesothelioma or lung cancer decades later.
To minimize the risk of asbestos in your home, adhere to the following steps.
If you suspect that your house contains asbestos, it is important not to touch or disturb it. Most older homes do contain some asbestos, and it can be hiding in some unexpected places. Gas fireplace logs, the wrap and tape around steam pipes, boilers and furnace ducts, and even decorative material used to texture walls and ceilings may have been made with asbestos.
Children and pets should not be allowed to play near pipes or furnaces that may be surrounded by deteriorating asbestos. Likewise, do not dust, sweep or vacuum debris that you think may contain asbestos. Asbestos fibers are so small that they can pass through an ordinary vacuum bag and escape back into the room as dust. To clean areas that might contain asbestos dust, use a wet mop or cloth and dispose of it when done.
Homeowners who are worried about asbestos may choose to have suspicious material professionally tested. Although it is legal for homeowners to take their own test sample, most professionals do not recommend it because of the risk of releasing asbestos dust into the home or accidentally inhaling some of it. Instead, look for a sampling technician that is AHERA (Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act) accredited to come to your home and take samples for testing.
If your house is confirmed to contain asbestos, the next step is to determine whether or not the asbestos in its present state is a danger. In some cases, disturbing intact asbestos to remove it can create more problems than it solves. Also, an extensive asbestos abatement project can be messy and expensive. Depending on the state of the asbestos, homeowners may be advised to have it sealed or covered to prevent it from spreading dust.
As with sampling, it is legal for the owner of a single-family, owner-occupied home to remove their own asbestos, as long as they follow the handling and disposal guidelines established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). However, because these guidelines are extensive and require specialized equipment, it is not advisable.
When certified abatement professionals remove asbestos, they minimize the risk for mesothelioma and other illnesses by wearing a negative-pressure respirator, non-breathable coveralls, and rubber gloves and boots. Water is used during the removal process to minimize the risk of spreading asbestos dust. Afterward, the area must be decontaminated to ensure that no asbestos dust is left behind.
For a list of common products that may contain asbestos, see https://survivingmesothelioma.com/mesothelioma/asbestos/