Question: We’re renovating an older house and trying to do most, if not all, of the work ourselves. What is the deal with asbestos? I know it is something bad linked to lung cancer. How do I know if it is there and if it is safe for my kids to live in this house?
Answer: Great that you asked before you started renovating!
Asbestos is a heat-resistant mineral that is often present in residential roofing, siding, insulation, wall patching and caulking compounds, cement board, vinyl floor tiles, and furnaces. Unlike lead paint, different uses of asbestos were banned at different times so there is no one cut-off date after which safety can be assumed across the board, though Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says floor tiles put in after 1980 aren’t likely to contain asbestos. In fact this carcinogenic mineral which—you’re right!—has been linked to lung disease can still be legally used in many products, including cement board, pipe wraps, vinyl tiles, and roof coatings. Which means any demolition work can potentially disturb asbestos and exposure your family to its dangers.
Asbestos-related diseases can take decades to develop. Children face special exposure risks because of their age. Many toxicological concerns are chronic, meaning they develop with repeated exposures over time. The younger you are, the more time you have ahead of you, the greater the odds of exposure. In addition, although science has yet to produce any evidence supporting the idea, some have suggested that differences in younger, less developed lungs may cause them to accumulate greater amounts of asbestos accumulation.
This means that the best thing to do with asbestos is also the least expensive: leave it alone. As long as it or the material containing it is stable and not chipping, flaking, or crumbling, asbestos is a negligible hazard. Unfortunately, unless it’s labeled, there’s no way to tell if a given material or product contains asbestos. This means you can’t go ripping up the linoleum in your kitchen even if you’re dying to. You need to have it tested and only qualified professionals can accurately assess its presence.
If you suspect asbestos is present in this new-to-you house, do not attempt to diagnose or remediate the problem yourself, or embark on a project that will involve working with or removing suspected items or materials. There are regulations that cover materials that contain asbestos. So it’s not only for your own safety. You may also have a regulatory responsibility to make sure you don’t disturb and throw out materials that contain asbestos.
The following are some of asbestos’ most common hiding places. The list is quite broad and, again, only an expert can confirm or deny its actual presence, which highlights the need to know what you’re getting into before you start your project. If testing and/or asbestos remediation is outside of your budget, you can sometimes get around it. New flooring, for example, can sometimes be installed over the old, instead of ripping it up.
- Insulation. Attic and wall insulation was once commonly made from vermiculite, a crumbly mineral that looks a bit like tiny wood pellets or pebbles and can be contaminated with asbestos. This insulation is the only thing on this list that is easy to identify with a simple Google image search. If you’ve got it, and your project will disturb it, call in an expert!
- Vinyl floor tiles and sheet flooring.
- Acoustical ceiling tile.
- Roofing and cement siding or shingles.
- Textured paints and “popcorn” walls.
- Vinyl wallpaper.
- Wall and joint patching compound.
- Cement board or sheets around wood stoves and other high-heat appliances.
- Hot water and steam pipe insulation.
- Furnace door gaskets and fireproofing.
- Fuse boxes.
For more information on making sure your renovation is as safe as can be, check out our new e-book, Easy Steps to Healthy Home Improvement. It’s free to download. Good luck!
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