Asbestos has been outlawed as a building material for more than three decades, but that doesn't mean it can't turn up in your home. And when it does, it shouldn't be ignored.
It wasn't unusual to find asbestos in construction materials, such as drywall products, floor tile and roofing shingles, up until the mid 1980s. It was used as an insulator and flame retardant. Though it was banned in 1978, the law allowed companies to use up their existing supply of the material until 1986.
Joy, of Fort Worth, Tex., recently discovered her pipes were insulated with asbestos when she called a plumber to repair her water heater.
"He told us the water heater was not even installed to code," Joy wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "We were not told about the asbestos pipe either. At this point there is no resolution. I don't even know where to begin with this."
Linked to fatal diseases
Asbestos was outlawed because it is dangerous when it becomes airborne, leading to diseases like mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. Despite that scary fact, asbestos removal is not always necessary when you discover it. In some cases, experts say doing so could actually increase the risks to you and your loved ones.
That's because asbestos creates harm when the material ages and breaks down or is damaged. As it crumbles, tiny particles are released in the air and can end up in your lungs. If asbestos-containing materials such as drywall and floor tile are undamaged, you could be better off leaving it alone.
But here's a problem. Generally, you can't tell whether material contains asbestos just by looking at it, unless it happens to have a label. To be sure Â requires sophisticated tests.
When in doubt
If in doubt, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the federal agency with jurisdiction over asbestos removal, says you should treat the material as if it contains asbestos and leave it alone. You may want to have your home inspected for asbestos-containing materials by a trained and accredited asbestos professional if you're planning a remodeling project that could disturb or damage the materials in question.
A trained and accredited asbestos professional should take samples for analysis, since a professional knows what to look for, and because there may be an increased health risk if fibers are released. In fact, if done incorrectly, sampling can be more hazardous than leaving the material alone. For that reason, taking samples yourself is not recommended.
If building materials in your home aren't damaged and won't be disturbed, the EPA advises you do not need to have your home tested for asbestos. Material that is in good condition and will not be disturbed should be left alone.
No cause for alarm
For that reason, finding what you think is asbestos in your home is no call for alarm. A visual inspection of the area should tell you if the material is damaged and "leaking" tiny fibers. If it appears to be in good shape, and is unlikely to be damaged or disturbed, it probably poses no risk.
If the material you suspect is asbestos shows signs of wear or damage, or is exposed to potential wear and damage, there are two courses of action and both should be left to professionals.
Repair usually involves either sealing or covering asbestos material. With any type of repair, the asbestos remains in place.
Sealing, also known as encapsulation, involves treating the material with a sealant that either binds the asbestos fibers together or coats the material so fibers are not released. 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, also called enclosure, involves placing something over or around the material that contains asbestos to prevent release of fibers. Exposed insulated piping may be covered with a protective wrap or jacket.
Removing asbestos from your home can be an expensive project. To keep it from being more expensive than it should be, EPA recommends avoiding a conflict of interest. An asbestos professional hired to assess the need for asbestos repair or removal should not be connected with an asbestos firm that does the actual repair or removal of materials. It is better to use two different firms so there is no conflict of interest.
When considering the services of asbestos professionals, ask them to document their completion of federal or state-approved training. Each person performing work should provide proof of accreditation to do asbestos work.
It is also a good idea to check on the past performance of your candidates with your local air pollution control board, the local agency responsible for worker safety, and the Better Business Bureau. Ask if the firm has had any safety violations. Find out if there are legal actions filed against it.