Ask an Expert is an occasional feature where we pose a question submitted by a reader to our Healthy Home Director Carl Grimes and Healthy Building Scientist Joe Medosch.
Reader Question: How can I tell if there is asbestos in my home and how concerned should I be? What can I do if it needs to be removed?
The presence of asbestos is not obvious because it is not used as a material by itself like wood, metal, or lead-based paint. Asbestos is almost always part of another material. Which is why it is correctly referred to as “asbestos-containing material” (ACM). According to the EPA, typical asbestos-containing materials in houses include:
- Duct sealing tape at duct connections or seams
- Attic and wall insulation produced containing vermiculite
- Vinyl floor tiles 9” x 9” and the backing on vinyl sheet flooring and adhesives
- Roofing and exterior siding shingles
- Plaster, and patching compounds used on walls and ceilings
- Walls and floors around wood-burning stoves protected with asbestos paper, millboard, or cement sheets
- Hot water and steam pipes wrapped with asbestos material or covered with an asbestos blanket or tape
- Oil or coal furnaces and door gaskets with asbestos insulation
- Heat-resistant fabrics
- These are only some of the common asbestos-containing material used in homes
Highest Risk Installations for Asbestos Exposure
However, not all asbestos installations have the same risk. Houses built before 1960 are at highest risk for presence of asbestos, because it is likely to have been used in multiple places throughout the home. The highest risk for exposure is when the material is friable, meaning the fibers are loose, or otherwise damaged or degraded.
Although asbestos is limited in the US, asbestos-containing materials are imported from countries where it is still legal. This creates the potential for risk even in new/newer houses.
When are you at risk?
The health risk from asbestos-containing material is from inhaling the asbestos fibers when they’ve been disturbed and released into the air. According to the EPA, Asbestos fibers may be released into the air by the disturbance of asbestos-containing material during:
- Building or home maintenance
- Remodeling, repair, or restoration work
- Demolition work
- Building materials containing asbestos are damaged, rotted, or in poor condition.
Health Effects of Asbestos Exposure
The known health effects of asbestos exposure are lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis. Asbestos-related conditions are thought to develop over years, not days or months, so the risk from short-term exposure is lower than those for long-term exposure, but minimizing all asbestos exposure is recommended. Additional health effects information is available from the CDC here.
EPA is the governing body regulating testing and removal of asbestos-containing materials. See here for details. However, some states have more stringent requirements that must also be followed. Contact your State Department for relevant requirements. A complete list of contacts for each state can be found here. Failure of contractors to fully comply with inspection and remediation regulations can result in severe penalties.
Inspection and Testing
The only way to know for sure if you have asbestos-containing material in your home is to send small samples of suspect materials to a lab for analysis.
If you decide to do the testing yourself, contact the EPA and your State Health Department first to see if it is legal, how to proceed, and what the limitations and risks are. Knowing this information will help minimize your asbestos exposure.
If you hire a professional asbestos inspector, make sure they have the required Federal and State certifications and licenses.
- They should do a complete visual examination and collect/test samples.
- The inspector should provide a written evaluation describing its location and extent of damage and give recommendations for correction or prevention.
CAUTION: Lab test results may state the area had less than 1% of asbestos (the smallest amount that can be detected). This does not mean the installation does not have asbestos, it means the area tested did not contain asbestos. There may be asbestos in other parts of the installation.
Asbestos abatement (removal)
If you home had past asbestos abatement, this does not guarantee that other areas or installations locations in the home do not also contain ACM (asbestos-containing materials).
Asbestos-containing materials don’t always have to be removed because their mere presence is not the concern. It is the friable fibers that can cause harm. In some instances, encapsulation (covering) in place is an option or simply continued good maintenance of undamaged building materials. In fact, removal or disturbing the material can cause the greatest risk.
When removal is the prudent action then compliance with some strict regulations will be required. Because of the risk of asbestos exposure, Hayward Score does not recommend DIY removal. Hire a professional asbestos contractor who has the required Federal and State certifications and licenses.
- Make sure the remediation plan follows either the EPA regulations or the more stringent regulations of your State Department of Health.
- Get a written contract specifying the work plan, containment, and clean-up procedures
- Make sure the area being abated was completely contained and no dust or fibers were released into your home.
- After the job is completed, get written assurance that procedures have been followed and post abatement testing was conducted.
- There are regulations for testing after the work is completed to confirming the safe removal established by EPA.
If you found this article useful, you may also like our Ask An Expert: Lead-Based Paint article.
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