Almost every house built before 1980 contains asbestos. It was one of the most popular products in the construction industry because of its insulation and fire-retardant properties. It’s also found in over 3000 other products.
Asbestos toxicity in humans became well-known in the 1970s. Since then, over 60 countries have banned the use of asbestos except for a few specific products. Some other countries have restricted asbestos use–especially in insulation and construction uses. In April 2019, the EPA published its list of prohibited asbestos products. Multiple construction products–including various insulations–are on the list.
Where to Look For Asbestos in Homes
Almost every pre-1970s house and commercial building contains asbestos-based materials. Knowing what to look for and where to look will help decide what type of remediation to undertake.
Most Common Asbestos Materials in a House
Asbestos is–and has been–used in house construction for decades. Some of these uses include:
- Asbestos Siding.
- Cement and Plaster.
- Floor and Ceiling Tiles.
- Roofing Products. Including tar paper, felt, and shingles.
- Surface Treatments. Including drywall, drywall compound, putty, paint, caulking, sealants, spackling, and popcorn-type ceiling textures.
- Furnaces and Heating Systems. Including insulation wrap and white joint tape used on ducts.
- Insulation. All types of building envelope insulation, including wall and floor batts, attic batts, and loose fill blown-in. Also, hot water tanks and pipes insulation.
How to Identify Asbestos in the Home
The three types of asbestos most common in home and construction products include crocidolite, amosite, and chrysotile (most common).
- Crocidolite asbestos is blue and is the most hazardous to human health. You can find it in pre-1970s spray-on insulation, plastic, cement, and pipe insulation.
- Amosite asbestos is brown and the second most common type in the US. It poses significant health hazards since its fine fibers are easy to inhale. You can find it in multiple insulation products, cement, roofing, tiles, and gaskets.
- Chrysotile asbestos is white and accounts for up to 95 percent of asbestos in the United States, making it the most common type. You can find chrysotile in tiles, asphalt, plastics, rubber, brake pads, gaskets, textiles, and more.
Aside from looking at color, another clue is texture. Friable asbestos products crumble easily, while non-friable asbestos products contain a bonding agent, preventing the asbestos fibers from being released. Non-friable asbestos is still in production and poses a much lesser risk to human health. Crumbling near the suspected site can indicate that you’re dealing with dangerous asbestos.
While it’s nearly impossible to identify asbestos in the home without a test kit, knowing asbestos colors and products can help you identify potentially affected areas.
Does Asbestos Have a Smell?
Asbestos doesn’t have a smell, so you can not identify asbestos-containing areas through scent. Instead, you’ll need to rely on the color, texture, product, and, ultimately, a test kit or professional inspector.
How to Test for Asbestos in the Home
If you suspect asbestos in the house, you have two options for correctly identifying it – use an at-home test kit or have a professional asbestos removal company or inspector check out the house. Peace of mind is worth the cost.
There are many asbestos testing kits available, and most work the same way, requiring users to collect a sample and mail it to a laboratory for analysis. The price of most kits includes the lab test cost.
Some kits contain gloves and PPE for the safe collection of samples. Some contain no PPE and are for samples that do not require collection.
How to Remove Asbestos Insulation
There are no federal laws regulating the removal of asbestos, but many local jurisdictions have regulations for the removal and disposal.
The best, safest, and most environmentally sound way to remove asbestos is through a professional removal company. They have experience, knowledge, equipment, and connections. Even without federal regulations, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends hiring professionals to remove asbestos.
All US asbestos removal companies are licensed by the EPA. These companies have to meet strict guidelines to comply with their licensing agreement. Each project requires a test consultant to certify that all asbestos has been completely removed from the building.
DIY Asbestos Removal
If you find an asbestos problem during a renovation, check local regulations. Some local governments do not allow DIY asbestos removal. Those that do require a removal permit. And while removing the asbestos yourself might be easy, disposing of it is the hard part. In many places, any amount of asbestos-contaminated material over one percent must be taken to an approved site. Look for an approved site before taking on an asbestos project, as you may not have one nearby.
Once you have the permits and a disposal site, move your family out of the house to keep them safe. Wear a hazmat-type suit c/w boot covers and a hood and goggles, gloves, and a respirator with minimum P100 filters to complete the PPE.
When the material is out of the house and ready for disposal (in sealed bags), bag everything you were wearing, including the respirator, and throw it out too.
Should You Remove Asbestos in the Home or Leave It?
Asbestos insulation can cause lung cancer, asbestosis, mesothelioma, and ovarian cancer, among other diseases. Inhaling the small asbestos fibers causes all of the diseases, and the fibers are released into the air when asbestos is disturbed.
Asbestos is very friable–meaning it crumbles easily, especially when rubbed. Asbestos building materials release fibers and dust into the air during renovation and demolition activities, including:
- Disturbing in any way.
- Breaking Apart.
There are no significant health risks from the fibers if asbestos in the home is:
- Left undisturbed.
- Isolated. In non-living areas such as the attic.
- Sealed. Behind walls or floors. Unless the drywall and/or taping compound contain asbestos.
- Tightly bound. Inside products that are in good condition.
Asbestos fibers are very small and light. Just opening the attic hatch and going up to look at something is enough to get them moving into the air.
If you are unsure whether you should remove the asbestos products in your household or leave them be, contact a professional inspector.
Is Asbestos Dangerous to Homeowners?
Asbestos is dangerous and classified as a known human carcinogen. However, homeowners aren’t the usual groups who contract asbestosis, mesothelioma, and asbestos-induced lung cancer. Instead, it’s those who are in constant contact with asbestos-containing products.
- Asbestos miners, mill workers, and asbestos transportation workers.
- People constantly working with asbestos products, such as construction workers, shipbuilders, and pipefitters.
- Families of anyone working with asbestos. (The fibers are carried home on clothing and hair.)
- People living near asbestos mines or mills.
Even with prolonged high exposure to asbestos, it usually takes 10 to 40 years for symptoms of these diseases to appear. The NIH National Cancer Institute probably provides the best “Don’t panic” information.
“Everyone is exposed to asbestos at some time during their life. Low levels of asbestos are present in the air, water, and soil. However, most people do not become ill from their exposure. People who become ill from asbestos are usually those who are exposed to it on a regular basis, most often in a job where they work directly with the material or through substantial environmental contact.”
Sixty-six countries have now banned the importation and use of asbestos. Almost all of them allow a few exceptions for products like brake pads and clutch pads. Russia, China, India, and the United States are among those countries that have not joined the ban. Russia is the biggest asbestos miner. China and India are the biggest users.