Editorial Feature

What to do With Asbestos in the Home and Workplace



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Asbestos is a naturally occurring, fibrous silicate minerals mined for their useful properties such as thermal insulation, chemical and thermal stability, and high tensile strength. Asbestos is commonly used as an acoustic insulator but it could also be applied in thermal insulation, fireproofing, and other building materials. Many products in use today contain asbestos.

Asbestos is made up of microscopic bundles of fibers that may become airborne when asbestos-containing materials are damaged or disturbed. When these fibers get into the air, they may be inhaled into the lungs and can cause significant health problems. 

Where Can Asbestos Be Found?

Until the 1970s, many types of building products and insulation materials used in homes contained asbestos. However, most products made today do not contain asbestos. The few products made with and containing asbestos are required to be labeled, especially when smaller particles of asbestos (e.g. those that could be inhaled) are used. Common products potentially containing asbestos in the past, and conditions which may release fibers, include steam pipes, boilers, and furnace ducts; floor tiles; cement sheet, millboard, and paper; decorative materials and paints; and cement roofing, shingles, and siding. 

Steam Pipes, Boilers, and Furnace Ducts

Steam Pipes, boilers and furnace Ducts may be insulated with an asbestos blanket or asbestos paper tape. If damaged, repaired or removed improperly these materials may release asbestos fibers which are believed to pose significant health risks such as cancer. In recent years, there was evidence in the United States of the harmful effects of asbestos in these materials. The steam pipe explosion in New York City in July 2018 yielded significant traces of asbestos from steam pouring, and local authorities secured the area to mitigate the emergency. 

Floor Tiles

Asbestos was used in various vinyl, asphalt and rubber floor tiles, vinyl sheet flooring backing, and floor tile adhesive. Sanding or scraping when removing floor tiles or sheet may release asbestos fibers. 

Cement Sheet, Millboard and Paper

Cement sheet, millboard, and paper could be used as insulation around furnaces and woodburning stoves. Repairing or removing appliances may release asbestos fibers. This may also be the case when cutting, tearing, sanding, drilling, or sawing insulation. Worn seals and door gaskets on furnaces and stoves may also release asbestos fibers.

Soundproofing, Decorative Materials, and Textured Paints

Sprayed soundproofing or decorative material on walls and ceilings may contain asbestos. Loose, crumbly, or water-damaged material may release fibers. This is also true during sanding, drilling, or scraping the material. This includes patching, joint compounds, and textured paints.

Asbestos Cement Roofing, Shingles and Siding

Although asbestos cement roofing, shingles, and siding all contain asbestos fibers, they are not likely to release asbestos fibers unless sawed, drilled, or cut. This implies that the risk for asbestos-related health risks are only posed when asbestos fibers are released into the air. 

What Should You Do If Your Home Contains Asbestos

If you think asbestos may be in your home, do not panic. Usually, the best action is to leave alone the asbestos material that is in good condition. Generally, material in good condition will not release asbestos fibers. Below are two tips that you may want to consider in addressing asbestos-related issues in your home. 

  • Check materials regularly if you suspect it may contain asbestos. Do not touch such materials, but look for signs of wear or damage such as tears, abrasions, or water damage. Damaged material may release asbestos fibers. This is particularly true if you often disturb it by hitting, rubbing, or handling it, or if it is exposed to extreme vibration or airflow.
  • Limit access to damaged or even slightly damaged materials. Discard damaged or worn asbestos gloves, stove-top pads, or ironing board covers. Check with local health, environmental, or other appropriate officials to find out proper handling and disposal procedures. If asbestos material is more than slightly damaged, or if you are going to make changes in your home that might disturb it, repair or removal by a professional is needed. 

What Happens When Asbestos is Repaired

Repair usually involves either sealing or covering asbestos material. Sealing (encapsulation) involves treating the material with a sealant that either binds the asbestos fibers together or coats the material to stop their release. Pipe, furnace, and boiler insulation can sometimes be repaired this way. This should be done only by a professional trained to handle asbestos safely.

Covering (enclosure) involves placing something over or around the material that contains asbestos to prevent the release of fibers. Exposed insulated piping may be covered with a protective wrap or jacket.

With any type of repair, the asbestos remains in place. Repair is usually cheaper than removal, but it may make later removal of asbestos, if necessary, more difficult and costly. Repairs can either be major or minor.

How is Asbestos Removed

Removal is an expensive method of dealing with asbestos. This is why, unless required by state or local regulations, removal should be the last option considered in most situations. The reason for its cost is that the process poses the greatest risk of fiber release. 

How To Identify Materials That Contain Asbestos

You cannot tell whether or not a material contains asbestos simply by looking at it unless it is labeled. If in doubt, treat the material as if it contains asbestos or have it sampled and analyzed by a qualified professional. A professional should take samples for analysis since they know what to look for, and because there may be an increased health risk if fibers are released. 

If done incorrectly, sampling can be more hazardous than leaving the material alone. Taking samples yourself is not recommended. Materials that are in good condition and will not be disturbed (by remodeling, for example) should be left alone. Only materials that are damaged or will be disturbed should be sampled.

Article updated on 7th February, 2020.

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