Learn about asbestos removal and testing in the home.
Asbestos removal occasionally finds its way onto the list of homeowners' concerns, particularly in older homes. The term "asbestos" includes six naturally occurring fibrous minerals that are mined because of their heat- and chemical-resistant qualities. The minerals' fibers are long enough to separate and weave into various manufactured goods, resulting in extremely durable products. However, asbestos is a human carcinogen that has been linked to asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma, usually after being accidentally inhaled.
Asbestos fibers and particles can remain in the air for a long period of time following the breakdown of a product or natural deposit containing the fibers. Additionally, the fibers do not evaporate or dissolve. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has banned the use of asbestos since 1989, products that used asbestos before the ban are exempt and present a real danger.
Asbestos is commonly used in building materials, including roofing, flooring, and acoustic and heat insulation. It is also found in automobile parts. Those who work in the construction industry are the most vulnerable to exposure, particularly when asbestos is removed during a building's renovation or demolition. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimates 1.3 million workers in construction and general industry are significantly exposed to asbestos on the job.
The EPA recognizes the following building products may contain asbestos:
The following insulation products may contain asbestos:
The following automotive products may contain asbestos:
Without a professional analysis, unless a product is labeled as specifically containing asbestos, homeowners have no way of knowing if building materials used in their homes contain the fibers. In addition to building materials, asbestos in the home may also be found in textured paint and patching compounds that were applied before 1977, insulation around oil and coal furnaces, artificial ash and embers used in gas-fired fireplaces, stove-top pads and ironing board covers.
Because testing a product by taking a sample can be more dangerous than leaving asbestos alone, the Washington State Department of Ecology recommends treating all thermal system insulation and surfacing materials installed prior to 1981 as if they contain asbestos rather than risking exposure through sampling. Typically, materials containing asbestos only release fibers if they are damaged, so special care should be taken to prevent compromising the integrity of materials potentially containing asbestos. Asbestos testing is recommended if one is planning to remodel an older home.
The EPA requires asbestos-testing labs to conduct an analysis, called polarized light microscopy, which can determine the type and percentage of asbestos used in a material. The content of asbestos in a manufactured product ranges from 1 to 100 percent. The National Institute of Standards and Technology lists accredited asbestos-testing labs in each state.
In order to test a material for asbestos, a sample must be taken and submitted for analysis. Taking an asbestos sample can be dangerous, so the use of a professional asbestos service is recommended (preferably one that is not associated with the lab that will be doing the analysis). For homeowners who decide to take the sample themselves, the EPA recommends first calling the laboratory that will run the tests and speaking to a representative about how to take the sample, how much is needed and how to store it.
Many precautions should be taken before and during the process of collecting a sample that may contain asbestos. Heating and cooling systems should be shut down before beginning. Only the person taking the sample should be in the room and that person should wear disposable gloves. The Washington State Department of Ecology offers the following instructions for safely removing an asbestos sample:
Only a professional specifically trained in asbestos handling should remove or seal material that is confirmed as containing asbestos. If asbestos is in good condition, it should be left alone because removing it can present a much more significant health risk than leaving it in place. However, if the material is damaged or will be disturbed in the near future, it needs to be sealed, covered or removed.
Material containing asbestos can be repaired either by sealing or covering it. When the material is sealed, the asbestos fibers bind together and cannot be released. When covering asbestos material, a protective wrap or jacket is placed around the damaged area. Repairing asbestos is less expensive than removing it, but repairing it could add significant cost to the removal process if it's required later.