Asbestos Frequently Asked Questions
What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a mineral fiber. It can be positively identified only with a special type of microscope. There are several types of asbestos fibers. In the past, asbestos was added to a variety of products to strengthen them and to provide heat insulation and fire resistance.
How Can Asbestos Effect My Health?
From studies of people who were exposed to asbestos in factories and shipyards, we know that breathing high levels of asbestos fibers can lead to an increased risk of:
Lung Cancer Mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the chest and the abdominal cavity Asbestosis, in which the lungs become scarred with fibrous tissue The risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma increases with the number of fibers inhaled. The risk of lung cancer from inhaling asbestos fibers is also greater if you smoke.
People who get asbestosis have usually been exposed to high levels of asbestos for a long time. The symptoms of these diseases do not usually appear until about 20 to 30 years after the first exposure to asbestos. Most people exposed to small amounts of asbestos, as we all are in our daily lives, do not develop these health problems.
However, if disturbed, asbestos material may release asbestos fibers, which can be inhaled into the lungs. The fibers can remain there for a long time, increasing the risk of disease. Asbestos material that would crumble easily if handled, or that has been sawed, scraped, or sanded into a powder, is more likely to create a health hazard.
Where Can I Find Asbestos And When Can It Be A Problem?
Most products made today do not contain asbestos. Those few products made which still contain asbestos that could be inhaled are required to be labeled as such.
However, until the 1970s, many types of building products and insulation materials used in homes contained asbestos.
Common products that might have contained asbestos in the past, and conditions that may release fibers, include:
- Steam Pipes, Boilers, and Furnace Ducts insulated with an asbestos blanket or asbestos paper tape. These materials may release asbestos fibers if damaged, repaired, or removed improperly
- Resilient Floor Tiles (vinyl asbestos, asphalt, and rubber), the backing on Vinyl Sheet Flooring, and Adhesive used for installing floor tile. Sanding tiles can release fibers. So may scraping or sanding the backing of sheet flooring during removal.
- Cement Sheets, millboards, and Paper used as insulation around furnaces and woodburning stoves. Repairing or removing appliances may release asbestos fibers. So may cutting, tearing, sanding, drilling or sawing insulation
- Door Gaskets in furnaces, wood stoves, and coal stoves. Worn seals can release asbestos fibers during use.
- Sound Proofing or Decorative Material sprayed on walls and ceilings. Loose, crumbly, or water-damaged material may release fibers. So will sanding, drilling, or scraping the material.
- Patching AND Joint Compounds for walls and ceilings, and Textures Paints. Sanding, scraping, or drilling these surfaces may release asbestos.
- Asbestos Cement Roofing, Shingles, and Sidings. These products are not likely to release asbestos fibers unless sawed, drilled, or cut.
- Artificial Ashes and Embers sold for use in gas-fired fireplaces. Also, other older household products such as Fire-Proof Gloves, Stove-Top Pads, Ironing Board Covers, and certain Hairdryers.
- Automobile Brake Pads and Linings, Clutch Facings, and Gaskets.
Any Examples of Where Asbestos Hazards May Be Found In The Home?
- Some roofing and siding shingles are made of asbestos cement.
- Houses built between 1930 and 1950 may have asbestos as insulation.
- Attic and wall insulation produced using vermiculite ore, particularly ore that originated from a Libby, Montana mine, may contain asbestos fibers. Vermiculite was mined in Libby, Montana between 1923 and 1990. Prior to its close in 1990, much of the world’s supply of vermiculite came from the Libby mine. This mine had a natural deposit of asbestos which resulted in the vermiculite being contaminated with asbestos. (See EPA’s 2003 brochure on Current Best Practices for Vermiculite Attic Insulation)
- Asbestos may be present in textured paint and in patching compounds used on wall and ceiling joints. Their use was banned in 1977.
- Artificial ashes and embers sold for use in gas-fired fireplaces may contain asbestos.
- Older products such as stove-top pads may have some asbestos compounds.
- Walls and floors around woodburning stoves may be protected with asbestos paper, millboard, or cement sheets.
- Asbestos is found in some vinyl floor tiles and the backing on vinyl sheet flooring and adhesives.
- Hot water and steam pipes in older houses may be coated with an asbestos material or covered with an asbestos blanket or tape.
- Oil and coal furnaces and door gaskets may have asbestos insulation.
What Should Be Done About Asbestos In The Home?
If you think asbestos may be in your home, don’t panic. Usually, the best thing is to leave asbestos material that is in good condition alone. Generally, material in good condition will not release asbestos fibers. Check material regularly if you suspect it may contain asbestos.
Don’t touch it, but look for signs of wear or damage such as tears, abrasions, or water damage. Damaged material may release asbestos fibers. This is particularly true if you often disturb it by hitting, rubbing, or handling it, or if it is exposed to extreme vibration or airflow. Sometimes the best way to deal with slightly damaged material is to limit access to the area and not touch or disturb it. Discard damaged or worn asbestos gloves, stove-top pads, or ironing board covers.
Check with local health, environmental, or other appropriate officials to find out proper handling and disposal procedures. If asbestos material is more than slightly damaged, or if you are going to make changes in your home that might disturb it, repair or removal by a professional is needed. Before you have your house remodeled, find out whether asbestos materials are present.
How Do I Know if I Have Asbestos in My Home?
The only way to be sure whether a material contains asbestos is to have it tested by a qualified laboratory. The EPA recommends testing suspect materials only if they are damaged (fraying, crumbling) or if you are planning a renovation that would disturb the suspect material. Otherwise, it is best to leave asbestos undisturbed. Samples should be taken by a properly trained and accredited asbestos professional (inspector).
Asbestos Do’s And Don’ts for the Homeowner
- Do keep activities to a minimum in any areas having damaged material that may contain asbestos.
- Do take every precaution to avoid damaging asbestos material.
- Do have the removal and major repair done by people trained and qualified in handling asbestos. It is highly recommended that sampling and minor repair also be done by asbestos professionals.
- Don’t dust, sweep, or vacuum debris that may contain asbestos.
- Don’t saw, sand, scrape, or drill holes in asbestos materials.
- Don’t use abrasive pads or brushes on power strippers to strip wax from asbestos flooring. Never use a power stripper on a dry floor.
- Don’t sand or try to level asbestos flooring or its backing. When asbestos flooring needs replacing, install a new floor covering over it, if possible.
- Don’t track material that could contain asbestos through the house. If you cannot avoid walking through the area, have it cleaned with a wet mop. If the material is from a damaged area, or if a large area must be cleaned, call an asbestos professional.
Major repairs must be done only by a professional trained in methods for safely handling asbestos. Minor repairs should also be done by professionals since there is always a risk of exposure to fibers when asbestos is disturbed. Doing minor repairs yourself is not recommended since improper handling of asbestos materials can create a hazard where none existed. Removal is usually the most expensive method and, unless required by state or local regulations, should be the last option considered in most situations. This is because removal poses the greatest risk of fiber release.
However, removal may be required when remodeling or making major changes to your home that will disturb asbestos material. Also, removal may be called for if asbestos material is damaged extensively and cannot be otherwise repaired. Removal is complex and must be done only by a contractor with special training. Improper removal may actually increase the health risks to you and your family.
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