Asbestos is one of the most toxic minerals that you can commonly find in buildings and products in the United States and throughout the world. In fact, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has noted that there is no amount of asbestos exposure that can reasonably be considered healthy for humans.
Companies generally stopped using asbestos in products and building materials by the 1980s. But, that doesn’t mean asbestos is completely absent from everyday life. Millions of tons of asbestos were mixed with products from the late 19th century until the 1970s. Many homes, offices, schools, and other edifices still contain the substance to varying degrees, especially if they were built prior to the 1980s.
Before you decide to engage in any renovation or demolition, it’s important to know if asbestos is present in the building. Handling asbestos, however, is a very delicate situation. It is generally recommended that people stay as far away from airborne asbestos as possible. But, during a renovation, demolition, or even a natural disaster, it might be impossible to avoid.
Asbestos is also not usually noticeable to the naked eye, so proper testing must take place before any project begins.
The Dangers of Asbestos Exposure
Before we discuss how to handle asbestos, it’s important to clarify why asbestos removal and abatement is so important. Airborne asbestos fibers are microscopic, meaning that they can be inhaled or ingested without the person even knowing. Once inside the body, the durable fibers can lodge themselves in soft tissue like the lining of the lungs (pleura) or the lining of the abdominal cavity.
Over time, the amount of asbestos in the body can multiply as exposure continues. Gradually, asbestos fibers can interfere with cell production and produce a mutagenic response that can ultimately cause the formation of tumors and cancer cells.
Mesothelioma can take decades to appear after the first exposure to asbestos. Again, the issue with this is that asbestos can be found virtually everywhere. It was used in so many products and building materials that you may not even know that your own home is filled with it.
Products that were commonly mixed with asbestos included:
- Attic Insulation
- Pipe Insulation
- “Popcorn” ceilings
- Vinyl Floor Tiles and Other Flooring Options
- Electrical Wiring
- Carpet Underlay
- Caulking Materials
These materials were often infused with asbestos as a precaution against fire because of the mineral’s natural flame-resistant characteristics. Some building materials were also coated with spray-on asbestos insulation as a way to further protect from fire. Obviously, this led to a lot of people being exposed to asbestos and potentially incurring diagnoses of major diseases later in their lives.
How to Test for Asbestos
If you’ve ever wondered how to handle asbestos, the short answer is that you shouldn’t. Even inhaling a small amount of asbestos dust can be harmful. But, if you are considering a renovation or are moving into a new home that was built prior to the 1980s, you will naturally want to know if asbestos is present.
So, how do you test for asbestos in that situation?
If an asbestos inspector or consultant is available in your area, then you should contact them first. They will be your best bet at finding asbestos if it exists in your home. They are also typically accredited with state and federal agencies to provide these inspections.
Inspectors and consultants can do all of the following:
- Provide a full inspection of your home
- Evaluate the condition of asbestos-containing products in the home
- Remove samples for lab testing
- Offer guidance and suggestions for how to remove or abate asbestos
- Verify that the risk of asbestos contamination has been successfully removed
Sometimes, however, an asbestos inspector or consultant is not local, and the only option you have for testing for asbestos is yourself.
Asbestos testing kits can be used in order to identify the existence of asbestos. Some kits have almost instant results. With these kits, you can scrape some of the paint off a wall or grab a piece of insulation and place it in a tube with special chemicals. The chemicals will change color depending on whether asbestos exists and how much of it is there.
Other testing kits require you to send your samples to labs that can verify whether asbestos is present or not. For some, this can be prohibitively expensive. Some kits do include lab testing fees, but in other cases, you will have to pay additional fees for lab tests. You will also likely have to pay a fee for every individual sample you send in.
Of course, some states and localities prohibit unaccredited individuals from removing asbestos samples on their own. Homeowners are technically allowed to remove asbestos materials, but you should take the utmost care when doing so.
Proper protective gear includes:
- Respiratory devices that can filter out asbestos fibers
- Coveralls or long-sleeve shirts and pants
- Shoe coverings
Don’t spend a great deal of money on these products as you will want to throw them away after the sample removal. Be sure to place them in a large garbage bag carefully, and then take a shower afterward to remove any possible contaminants.
It should also be noted that some asbestos testing kits (even ones you send into a lab) can be unreliable. Your most accurate option will always be an asbestos inspector or consultant who knows how to remove samples without causing any contamination.
How to Remove Asbestos
If you have determined that asbestos is present in your home, then your next step will be removing it. Again, it is best to leave this job up to professionals who know how to handle asbestos properly.
Asbestos removal or abatement contractor can identify, handle, repair, remove, and safely dispose of asbestos-containing products in the home with no risk to themselves or the occupants of the home.
In many states and localities, it is actually illegal to handle, remove, or dispose of asbestos products without governmental accreditation. Asbestos removal or abatement specialists should have this accreditation. In fact, you should ask the contractor you choose to provide proof of their accreditation before you hire them.
Again, homeowners can legally remove asbestos-containing materials in their own homes, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) strongly recommends that you don’t. Trying to remove asbestos on your own can end up disturbing the fibers and causing them to go airborne. This, of course, opens you up to contamination. You may literally be risking your life if you decide to remove asbestos on your own.
It may also be difficult to identify which asbestos materials require removing and which ones are actually safe to stay in the home. Non-friable and undamaged asbestos products are generally safe because they cannot become airborne. But, if you disturb or break them in some way, you may end up exposing yourself to asbestos that you would never have come into contact with otherwise.
Handling Asbestos on the Job
There are many other ways you can encounter asbestos in your day to day life including at work. The EPA and the Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have enacted regulations for permissible levels of asbestos on the job. Workplaces are generally much safer than they were 50 or 60 years ago because of the restrictions imposed by OSHA.
They require employers to do all of the following if asbestos could be a problem at work:
- Provide workplace training for recognition of asbestos and how to safe
- Place warning and hazard signs in areas where asbestos exposure may be possible
- Make proper protective gear available including respiratory masks, gloves, clothing covers, etc.
- Offer routine health screenings for employees who work closely with asbestos
- Have asbestos removed on job sites where it is present
OSHA may also monitor workplaces for levels of allowable asbestos. If asbestos levels are too high, it is likely that work will shut down until the amount of asbestos can be limited. On construction sites, asbestos is a common problem. Before any renovation or demolition can take place, employers must have the site inspected and all asbestos removed by accredited professionals.
In the past, of course, job sites were rife with asbestos, and most high levels of exposure occurred at work. Regulations imposed by OSHA and the EPA have limited exposure at work, but completely removing it from all workplaces has been a challenge. This is particularly true for construction jobs. Even so, if your employer appears to be violating OSHA regulations, make sure you call your local OSHA office or your union representative (if applicable). Unless you’re an accredited asbestos removal specialist, you should never really have to handle large quantities of the substance at work.
Circumstances for Asbestos Removal on Your Own
In some cases, your best bet for removing asbestos is yourself. While these situations are rare, it’s important to know what to do if you need to act to remove asbestos. One of the more common reasons for removing asbestos on your own is accidental. If you accidentally break or disturb asbestos and can see visible asbestos dust, then it’s in your best interest to remove it as quickly as possible to avoid exposure.
For example, let’s say you accidentally scrape a popcorn ceiling in your house and pieces of the ceiling come floating down to the floor. It doesn’t make sense to call an asbestos removal specialist in this case, because the threat of exposure is fairly immediate.
To clean this, use a damp cloth or towel to wipe up the dust. The dampness keeps the particles from becoming airborne. Do not use a vacuum cleaner as it is not equipped to deal with asbestos fibers and may end up exposing you to the substance further.
Again, you should also wear protective gear while performing the cleanup. Place the cloth or towel along with all protective gear in two garbage bags and tie them each as tight as you can. You must also dispose of them at approved asbestos disposal sites. Contact your municipality to find an appropriate disposal site.
Another circumstance in which handling asbestos on your own may be required is a natural disaster. Many natural disasters can disturb asbestos products or outright destroy them.
Some disasters that may impact asbestos in your home include:
- Heavy winds
If you live an area where any of these commonly occur, you should have an emergency kit set aside to deal with after effects. Obviously, you’ll want food and water, but you should also have masks and a set of protective gear for everyone in the house (plus a couple extra for any possible guests). Disposable eyewear protection, gloves, and clothing are imperative in an emergency kit.
When handling asbestos, make sure to wet it first (probably with water from water bottles in your emergency kit). Double bag any asbestos materials and seal them firmly. Be sure to label the bags clearly because you will still need to dispose of them at approved disposal sites.
Natural disasters can turn non-friable asbestos into friable asbestos because they can break almost any asbestos-containing products. If your house is damaged beyond repair and you know asbestos was present, it’s probably in your best interest to avoid the site as much as possible. Your best option may simply be to wear protective gear while retrieving valuables. Major disasters that destroy homes can release high concentrations of asbestos into the air, making people at the disaster site highly susceptible to exposure.
Again, the best way to handle asbestos is not to do it at all. If you live in a new building, then you probably won’t have to worry about any exposure to asbestos. But, if your home does contain asbestos, your first call should almost always be to an asbestos professional.