Consumer’s Guide to Asbestos
Asbestos in your home or other buildings is not always a hazard, but disturbing or attempting to remove it without proper precautions can increase your risk of exposure to loose fibers. However, materials in poor condition, such as crumbling ceiling tiles or torn pipe insulation, are a risk and should be evaluated by a professional inspector.
What is asbestos? Asbestos is a group of six minerals with common properties – composed of tiny fibers, light but almost indestructibly strong, and chemical- and heat-resistant. Since the Industrial Revolution, it has been widely used in construction and other industries for insulation and fireproofing. Most buildings built before the mid-1980s contain some form of ...
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a group of six minerals with common properties – composed of tiny fibers, light but almost indestructibly strong, and chemical- and heat-resistant. Since the Industrial Revolution, it has been widely used in construction and other industries for insulation and fireproofing. Most buildings built before the mid-1980s contain some form of asbestos.
Should I be worried about asbestos?
Asbestos fibers are microscopic – hundreds of times thinner than a human hair. When fibers become airborne, either during mining or released from products made with asbestos, they can easily be inhaled. The fibers lodge deep in the lungs or other organs, irritating the tissue and causing grave illnesses that may not appear for a decade to more than half a century.
Inhaled asbestos fibers that enter the lungs can cause asbestosis, a painful and often fatal inflammation; lung cancer; and mesothelioma, a rare, always fatal malignancy which can strike the lungs and sometimes heart, gastrointestinal system and testes.
According to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, all forms of asbestos are hazardous. No level of exposure is safe. Even brief exposures can be harmful, but the risk increases depending on the amount of asbestos inhaled and the duration and frequency of exposure.
Asbestos in your home or other buildings is not always a hazard, but disturbing or attempting to remove it without proper precautions can increase your risk of exposure to loose fibers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advises people to “leave asbestos-containing material alone if it is in good condition. Keep an eye on asbestos-containing materials and visually check them over time for signs of wear or damage.”
What materials and products contain asbestos?
Since the 1980s, when the hazards of asbestos became widely known, its use has significantly declined. In 1989 the EPA attempted to ban it in most products, but the courts overturned EPA’s rule. Today many uses of asbestos are still legal, and much asbestos used in the past remains in place.
Some materials in the home that may contain asbestos include:
- Vinyl tiles and vinyl sheet flooring, including backing and glues
- Caulk and construction glues
- Wall and ceiling patching and joint compounds and textured paints (banned in 1977)
- Ceiling materials (sprayed on or applied to ceilings or walls from 1945 to 1978)
- Ceiling tiles
- Furnace and stove insulation
- Door seals in furnaces, ovens and wood stoves
- Artificial fireplace ashes and logs
- Water and steam pipe insulation installed from 1920 to 1972
- Wall and ceiling insulation installed from 1930 to 1950
- Vermiculite insulation in attics and walls installed from 1919 to 1990
- Roofing, shingles, and siding
- Appliances (toasters, boilers, ovens, washer, dryers, refrigerators, dishwashers)
- Older oven mitts and stove pads
Products currently manufactured that contain asbestos and are not banned include:
- Cement sheets
- Pipeline wrapping tape
- Roofing felt paper
- Vinyl floor tile
- Cement shingles
- Insulation boards
- Cement pipe
- Automotive components (transmission, brake and clutch parts)
- Industrial equipment (parts in brakes, fans and turbines)
- Door seals
- Non-roofing coatings
- Roof coatings
How do I know if I have asbestos in my home?
Before starting a project, check the area for materials that might contain embedded asbestos. You should always assume that vermiculite insulation, often sold under the brand name Zonolite, contains asbestos. But many other construction materials laden with asbestos aren’t labeled. If you’re not sure what you’re dealing with, experts recommend that you have the material sampled by an accredited professional and tested by a certified lab. The National Institute of Standards and Technology maintains lists of laboratories accredited to test asbestos by approved methods.
What should I do if I find asbestos?
If a material with asbestos is in good condition, the best option may be to leave it in place. If you don’t disturb it, you’re not likely to release loose fibers. However, materials in poor condition, such as crumbling ceiling tiles or torn pipe insulation, are a risk and should be evaluated.
Close off attics with vermiculite insulation. Never allow children to play in these spaces, and don’t store items there.
How can an asbestos contractor help?
An asbestos contractor can inspect your home, take samples, assess the condition of the asbestos and advise you what to do. Make sure companies offering asbestos abatement have the appropriate certifications and licenses required by your state. Check with your state’s department of environmental protection or health for a current list of accredited professionals.
A consultant may suggest covering or sealing the asbestos material to prevent damage and release of fibers. The material can be coated, or new material without asbestos can be installed over it. For example, new flooring may be laid on top of old asbestos-laden vinyl floor tiles. If you have to remove old flooring, make sure your contractor follows guidelines issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for handling asbestos. The contractor should:
- Use plastic sheeting and tape to isolate the area involved.
- Equip workers with certified respirators. Dust masks offer no protection against breathing asbestos fibers.
- Wet down material to be moved, cut, or drilled with a fine mist of water beforehand.
The contractor should not:
- Track material outside the isolation zone.
- Break the material into small pieces.
- Dust, sweep, or vacuum particles containing asbestos. Dust should be removed by wet-mopping or with a special vacuum with a high efficiency particulate air filter.
Where can I learn more?
Environmental Protection Agency
California Contractors State License Board:
Consumer Products Safety Commission
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
National Institute for Standards and Technology certified testing labs