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Is it safer to remove asbestos from a building or leave it there?

Asbestos in Your Home
It is strongly recommended that homeowners hire a certified professional contractor -- like this one in New York City -- to deal with asbestos present in the house.
It is strongly recommended that homeowners hire a certified professional contractor -- like this one in New York City -- to deal with asbestos present in the house.
Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images

Knowing that your house contains a carcinogenic -- cancer-causing -- material obviously creates an unsettling feeling. One of the problems with diagnosing asbestos-related medical conditions is that it takes a long time for symptoms to show up. It can take 20 to 30 years after exposure before cancer or other problems appear. During that time, you may have no idea that you continue to breathe asbestos fibers into your lungs. And people who smoke and are exposed to asbestos fibers are at greatest risk for developing lung cancer.

If you’ve had a certified contractor come to your house to take samples and have found that there is indeed asbestos present in your home, what do you do next? That decision depends on a few factors.  

Is the asbestos in your home in materials that are deteriorating or likely to be disturbed, perhaps through future remodeling? If so, then you should probably have the asbestos removed. Any sort of disturbance, like sanding paint or sawing fiberboard that contains asbestos, will release the fibers into the air in your home.

If the asbestos product is in good shape, or used in an out-of-the-way area -- for example, as insulation for heating or plumbing pipes in your crawlspace or attic -- you may be better off leaving the asbestos in place.

Should you choose to keep the asbestos products in your home, you have a few options for dealing with the problem. The U.S. EPA suggests that if you opt not to have asbestos materials removed, you should seal or cover them. Sealing includes using specially created products that are designed to coat an asbestos product and bind the fibers together permanently. This way, even if the asbestos is disturbed, the fibers will not be released. Covering asbestos can include wrapping it or closing it off from a room.

Whatever method you choose, it’s strongly recommended that you hire a certified professional contractor to carry out removal or sealing and covering processes. Just as taking samples of asbestos is dangerous, these other methods are even more so.

Even though most government health and environmental agencies strongly urge homeowners to hire a contractor to remove asbestos, it is possible to remove it yourself. The high cost of asbestos removal alone may keep some people from hiring a contractor. If you want or need to remove asbestos yourself, there are a number of steps and precautions you should follow. For one thing, you should use hand tools instead of power tools to minimize the dust created by removing materials. You should also use a powerful vacuum to clean up, rather than sweeping excess materials. It’s also important to keep the asbestos material damp or wet during removal to keep fibers from becoming airborne. And, whenever possible, asbestos should be removed in large, intact chunks. Wearing a good EPA- or OSHA-certified mask is also important.

For more information on asbestos, including the guides mentioned above, and related topics, visit the next page.