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

As if Hurricane Katrina didn't cause enough problems, the storm also disturbed asbestos present in older homes. Specially trained crews, like the one of which Anthony Neal (above) is a member, were called in to help deal with asbestos removal. See more pictures of natural disasters.
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Reaganomics, new wave music, the centennial of the Statue of Liberty and breakdancing were just a few of the highlights that made the 1980s unique. The '80s were also marked by hysteria over asbestos. In the 1970s, it became increasingly clear that exposure to this fibrous material had the potential to cause cancer and other respiratory problems. Perhaps what fueled asbestos hysteria the most was the revelation that asbestos could be found just about everywhere -- in offices, churches, schools, grocery stores and, worst of all, homes.

The surge to have asbestos removed from buildings and dwellings began, and governments across the globe moved to ban and phase out production of asbestos in manufacturing. Through the decades, a lot of asbestos has been removed from buildings throughout the world, but there's plenty more still in place. And since removing asbestos is dangerous -- not to mention expensive -- is it better to have it removed or to just leave it alone?

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Living in a home with intact asbestos doesn't necessarily pose a health risk. Most people who suffer asbestos-related major health problems are exposed to the substance over long periods of time, such as workers in factories that produce asbestos products [source: National Cancer Institute]. But when these materials in your home deteriorate over time, or become disturbed or damaged, asbestos fibers can be released into the air. It's a material with lots of staying power; fibers can stay around your house for years. Once released, these fibers -- especially the small, invisible variety -- can be breathed into your lungs.

Over time, these fibers can build up in your lungs, causing lung cancer and mesothelioma -- a cancer of the lung and abdominal cavity lining. Asbestos is a dangerous enough health risk that it even has a medical condition named for it: Asbestosis, which is a permanent scarring of the lung tissue. These scars can prove deadly over time [source: EPA].

There are a number of places asbestos may be found in your home. It occurs naturally as a form of magnesium silicate, and has been mined and used in manufacturing since the 19th century. The asbestos is separated into single fibers and added to products as a flame retardant or used as insulation. Paint, insulation, fiberboard, siding, soundproofing tiles, roof shingles, floor tile and cement have all included asbestos at one time or another, and some of these products still remain in some homes. Even vermiculite, the small white Styrofoam-like pellets found in potting soil, contains asbestos.

In homes built in the United States or Western Europe since the 1980s, there's little chance that asbestos is present. It's generally found more often in older homes. But if your tastes run toward the vintage and you live in an older home, how can you find out if asbestos is present in your dwelling?

In the late 1970s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and similar agencies in Europe began certifying professionals in asbestos identification and removal. If you think that you may have asbestos in your home, you should call a contractor to come out and perform a survey of your house. In some states the EPA itself is in charge of conducting inspection and removal of asbestos. This may be a good time to let the dog out back and take the kids to the movies; taking samples of materials that contain asbestos is dangerous, as the process releases airborne filaments into the air. You shouldn't take samples yourself.

If the samples come back positive and you suddenly find yourself feeling like you share your home with a sleeping killer, what should you do? Should you have it removed or leave it alone? That depends on a few things. Read the next page to find out more.

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.
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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.  

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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.

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Sources

  • "An introduction to indoor air quality: Asbestos." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. September 1990. http://www.epa.gov/iaq/asbestos.html
  • "Asbestos cement products: Asbestos - the dangers." Gloucester, UK City Council. June 9, 2005. http://www.gloucester.gov.uk/Content.aspx?urn=2554
  • "Asbestos exposure: Questions and answers." National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/asbestos
  • "Asbestos in your home." U.S Environmental Protection Agency. http://www.epa.gov/asbestos/pubs/ashome.html
  • "Asbestos removal." Workers Health Centre. April 17, 2005. http://www.workershealth.com.au/facts001.html