When you work with older buildings, particularly when you’re rehabbing, there are plenty of areas that though they once seemed useful, they have now been shown to be highly dangerous. We looked at lead paint before, but now, let’s take a look at another once highly used building material that causes major problems: asbestos.
Asbestos isn’t actually one thing. It’s actually a bunch of naturally occurring, fibrous silicates. Though the word asbestos is a fairly old one, it was the EPA that defined six materials that all fall under the heading of “asbestos” now, for these purposes. Those materials are:
Now, when people began really using asbestos, like lead paint, they just thought that it was very useful. It’s naturally chemical, heat and water resistant and the non-scented materials don’t evaporate or move through soil. In history, there are in fact, over 5000 recorded uses for it, and it was once seen as “a wonder mineral”.
However, don’t imagine that the risks associated with it have only been recently discovered. Even as far back as the Roman era, they knew that slaves would begin to have health issues, including lung problems. This is the most common way that asbestos harms people: because it can be inhaled. The fibers then become trapped in both the lungs and sometimes the digestive system. Asbestos has now been directly linked to lung, larynx, kidney and gastrointestinal tract cancer, asbestosis, mesothelioma, and diffuse pleural thickening. As a result, the EPA banned many of its uses in 1997. Australia also banned the import and use of it in 2003, Italy in 1992 while also putting into place a comprehensive decontamination effort, Japan banned its use in 2004, South Korea in 2009, and many other nations have enacted legislation to either partially ban its use, fully ban it, or heavily control it. France banned its use in 97, and then called for a worldwide ban. That has still not come to pass.
So, what can you do if you have concerns about asbestos in properties you buy? First, recognize where there is a risk. If the property you purchase was either built in or before the 70s, you should get it surveyed for asbestos by a qualified and licensed contractor. You should also know where and how asbestos has been used in construction. For example, asbestos was used in:
- Some types of linoleum
- Window caulk and glaze
- Vinyl tiles
- Floor tile glue
- Roofing materials
- HVAC duct insulation
- Corrugated heavy duty paneling
- Certain types of paint
- Attic insulation
In properties that were built before 1975, you will also find asbestos commonly used as thermal insulation for pipes and boilers.
Asbestos itself isn’t that dangerous, until it has been in place a long time or has been damaged over time. If left undisturbed in any way, asbestos does not release fibers. However, in homes, the problem is: nothing is ever left undisturbed. Pests, flooding, and other issues can cause damage to asbestos which will then cause it to release fibers and create a health hazard. If you suspect that there is asbestos on your property or in your home, checking for abrasions, tears and water damage is important- but do not disturb it. If it is damaged, unless you are an industrial hygienist or a licensed asbestos abatement contractor: it’s best to leave it alone and contact someone more qualified.