What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that has been used in the manufacture of thousands of products and was a common building material used in the mid 20th Century due to its strong fire-resistance and low cost. Asbestos is a very serious health hazard and is present in many older buildings in various forms.
Exposure to even a very small number of microscopic airborne asbestos fibers can cause asbestosis, or pleural thickening (non-cancerous lung diseases), and/or mesothelioma (lung cancer). All of these diseases are incurable and usually result in death. Asbestos is directly responsible for more than 6,000 deaths per year in the United States and has killed more than 500,000 people in total in the US. Despite this, it is still legal in the US and more than 30 million tons of asbestos are used each year.
All asbestos containing materials are dangerous when asbestos fibers are released into the atmosphere and are inhaled. Because of this, asbestos products that are damaged or disturbed are much more dangerous than asbestos products that are intact. While not everyone who comes into contact with asbestos will develop an asbestos-related health problem, the risk is nonetheless very high. In most cases, asbestosis and mesothelioma don’t develop for 10-40 years after the first exposure to asbestos. The longer an individual is exposed to airborne asbestos fibers, the greater the risk of developing health problems. Also, smoking greatly increases the risk of developing lung disease from asbestos.
Identifying Asbestos in Older Buildings
Homeowners, home buyers, building inspectors, supervisors, property managers and other professionals may need to be able to identify asbestos in a building. It can be difficult to perform an accurate visual asbestos identification due to the similarity of many construction materials and products and the lack of information about when such items were purchased and installed.
Asbestos in Older Houses
Many homeowners are surprised and even shocked to discover how ubiquitous asbestos was in many buildings during the mid-20th century. The truth is that most houses in the US that were built or renovated between 1940 and the late 1980s contain some asbestos.
Asbestos was commonly used in the following products (this list is not comprehensive – asbestos has been used in the manufacture of more than 3,000 products):
- Ceiling tiles
- Vinyl floor tiles (most commonly 9-inch tiles)
- Roof tiles and shingles
- House siding
- Boiler, pipe and duct insulation
- Air conditioning system insulation
- Fire-resistant cloths and sheeting in fire-proof cabinets
- Fireplaces and furnaces
- Fire doors
- Fire blankets
- Attic and roof cavity insulation
- Carpet underlay
- Fire-resistant cupboards
- Electrical box and fuse box backing boards
- Fiber cement sheets on exterior siding
- Corrugated external garage roofs and garage walls
- Gaskets on pipes and boilers
Also, underground cement pipes that contain asbestos can pose a serious health risk. Asbestos was mostly used in sewage and gas pipelines to reduce corrosion, but over time these pipes deteriorate and this can cause asbestos material to leak into other pipelines such as drinking water pipes.
Even though the health risks of asbestos are widely known, some newer homes may also contain products that were made with asbestos.
Asbestos was used in the manufacture of many more products, including household appliances, adhesives, brake pads, bricks and even in potholders, ironing boards and pianos.
The Health Hazards of Asbestos
Asbestos products, especially ceiling tiles and insulation, are usually harmless if they are left undisturbed, but if they are disturbed or damaged, they can release microscopic asbestos fibers into the atmosphere. These fibers are virtually indestructible, and are impervious to extreme heat and chemicals, and don’t evaporate into the atmosphere. Due to their small size, they remain suspended in the air for days or weeks after release. In many cases, it is often much more dangerous to attempt to remove asbestos products than it is to leave them as they are.
How Can I Identify Asbestos in My Home?
Identifying asbestos can be challenging due to the age and deteriorated condition of many building materials and the lack of visible brand names and product numbers on many items. Also, there is no comprehensive list of products and brands that were made using asbestos; there were no standardized Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) or Hazard Communication Labels during the decades asbestos was most commonly used.
Asbestos inspection can be very challenging. Just performing a visual inspection or comparing products you think may contain asbestos with photos online, no matter how reliable the source, is not a sufficient way to determine whether a material contains asbestos or not.
It’s always better to be “safe than sorry” with asbestos! The potential heath risks are far to great to take any chances.
If you think that any part of your home may contain asbestos, you should immediately get a sample of the material in question tested at a certified asbestos testing lab. The only definite way to identify whether or not there is asbestos in a substance or product in your home is by professional asbestos testing. Commercial properties are required to have a complete asbestos audit on the property, and it will include labs tests of all materials that are suspected to contain asbestos.
A certified asbestos testing lab will use transmission electron microscopy or polarized light microscopy to identify what kind of asbestos fibers are present in the sample, if any. According to the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986 (AHERA), all asbestos testing labs must adhere to the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) requirements to remain certified with the Environmental Protection Agency. You can search for accredited NIST laboratories here: https://www-s.nist.gov/niws/index.cfm?event=directory.search#no-back.
Between the 1920s and the 1980s, attic insulation was often made with asbestos. If your home contains vermiculite insulation that you think may have been installed during this period, you should get the insulation tested immediately before disturbing any of it.
Asbestos ceilings were common in many homes, mostly in the form of ceiling tiles and spray-on paint.
Interior Wall Paint
Asbestos was used to produce wall paints until the 1990s.
Fire-resistant window putty was sometimes produced with asbestos.
Fireplaces and Wood Stoves
In general, any material intended to be fire resistant in older houses could possibly contain asbestos. The fire-resistant cement sheets or paper on the interior of fireplaces and wood stoves may contain asbestos.
Garages and Garden Sheds
Asbestos roof tiles, roof panels and wall tiles are common in many older garages, especially standalone garages.
Asbestos was used to produce brake pads, clutches and gaskets. Before performing any brake replacement jobs, OSHA recommends assuming that all brake pads contain asbestos and taking appropriate precautionary measures before handling them (https://www.osha.gov/dts/shib/shib072606.html).
Siding and siding shingles were sometimes produced with asbestos to increase their fire resistance and strength.
Most home drywall does not contain asbestos unless the walls are fire protection rated. Asbestos drywall was usually only used in commercial buildings. Some texture compound and drywall edging in homes build or renovated before the 1980s may contain asbestos.
Carpet Underlay and Floor Tiles
Some asbestos carpet underlay may contain asbestos (especially in Australia). Vinyl floor tiles (especially 9-inch floor tiles) may contain asbestos, and floor tile fixing glue may also contain asbestos.
Heating and Air Conditioning Ducts
Insulation was one of the most common uses for asbestos. Heating and air conditioning insulation may contain asbestos in older buildings.
Water heater insulation can be made of asbestos, especially insulating blankets and cloth.
Pipe and Boiler Insulation
Piping systems leading to boilers and furnaces often contain asbestos material, and some boilers were insulated with asbestos.
Asbestos Cement Pipes
Sewage and gas pipelines were sometimes constructed with asbestos. These cement pipes are usually only dangerous when they begin to deteriorate and asbestos fibers become released into other pipelines.
There are currently asbestos testing kits on the market of various types. The manufacturer of these kits provide instructions to show how homeowners can safely extract some samples for a lab to test. The samples are sent back to the manufacturer, and their testing laboratory will test them and send the result back in a few weeks.
What Should I Do If There is Asbestos in My House?
If you have discovered that a part of your house contains asbestos, there are a few steps you can take to ensure that you and your family remain safe.
Firstly, identify where the asbestos is and whether the material has been damaged. As we stated above, damaged asbestos material can be much more dangerous that undamaged material. The most dangerous kind of asbestos is friable asbestos, which crumbles and breaks into smaller pieces easily releasing asbestos fibers into the air. Non-friable asbestos is less likely to release particles because the asbestos particles are encased in other strong materials and won’t be release into the air unless that material is cut or cracked.
If you find non-friable asbestos that hasn’t been damaged, it is unlikely that there is any immediate danger. In this case, asbestos encapsulation may be an option to contain the material and prevent the release of asbestos fibers. Encapsulation creates a sealed layer over the asbestos material to prevent all airflow to and from the asbestos material. However, if non-friable asbestos products are damaged or have deteriorated in any way, contacting a professional asbestos removal company is the safest option.
Undamaged and undisturbed friable asbestos is unlikely to release any asbestos particles into the air but should still be removed if possible. If removal is not an option, the entire area should be sealed off to prevent anyone from disturbing the asbestos material. Damaged friable asbestos is the most dangerous kind of asbestos. Stay away from any broken or disturbed friable asbestos you encounter until an asbestos removal contractor has removed all the material from your premises. You should take absolutely no chances with any friable asbestos you find.
You can find asbestos removal companies in most parts of the world; they will have the correct equipment and training to properly remove asbestos from your property. DIY asbestos removal is definitely not recommended.
Ultimately, removing asbestos from your property is the only way to completely ensure you and your family’s health and safety. Asbestos removal jobs are dangerous and require highly specialized training and equipment. If an asbestos removal job is not performed correctly, more asbestos fibers may be released than if the material was left undisturbed. Note that most home contractors and builders do not have the necessary certification or training to perform asbestos removal projects. You will probably have to hire an independent specialized firm to complete the work. This can often be costly but is a small price to pay relative to the risks asbestos poses.
If you have identified friable asbestos on your property, immediately seal off the area until a contractor sets up a containment barrier. This prevents asbestos fibers from being accidentally taken into other areas of the property. Any clothing, including shoes and gloves, that has come into contact with asbestos containing materials should be disposed of immediately.
A professional asbestos removal contractor uses a HEPA vacuum, wet mopping techniques and other specialized equipment, and wears approved protective clothing and respirators which are destroyed after use. Under no circumstances should you attempt to use a vacuum cleaner or sweep an area that contains asbestos products, as this can cause asbestos fibers to become airborne and make the area even more dangerous.
Once the asbestos products are removed, they are placed in EPA approved sealed plastic bags and disposed of at an asbestos-approved land fill.
Once all asbestos containing materials have been removed from your home, you should have an air quality test conducted by an accredited asbestos air quality testing firm.
If you have any questions or concerns about asbestos and asbestos removal, you can contact the EPA for more information here.
Remember that if non-friable asbestos containing products are in good condition and display no signs of damage, encapsulation may be a safer option than removing the products. Asbestos Guide.org strongly recommends that you do not attempt to perform the removal of any asbestos products yourself, even if you are an experienced builder or contractor. Asbestos removal is always a job for professionals who have been trained and are experienced at handling this dangerous material.
Asbestos in Commercial Buildings
Asbestos can be found in most of the same interior and exterior construction products in both residential and commercial buildings. If you work in an office building, warehouse, university or storage facility that was built or renovated between 1940 and 1990, the chances are very high that there is some asbestos somewhere on the premises. Follow the same process to identify asbestos products and get them either encapsulated or removed by a professional contractor.
Asbestos Visual Reference Photos
In some cases, asbestos containing products can be easily identified by a quick visual inspection. Some products made with asbestos had a unique design and there were no identical or similar non-asbestos look-alike products. Below are photos of common asbestos containing products in various commercial and residential buildings. If you encounter any similar products to these, a sample should be tested straight away.