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How do you find out if there's asbestos in your home?

Mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis are linked to asbestos exposure in the home and workplace. See more hidden home dangers pictures.
©iStockphoto.com/Scott Krycia

People who were old enough to use a hair dryer in the 1970s may remember their first exposure to the fear of asbestos when their dryers were recalled as a health threat [source: CPSC]. Others may have grown up with warnings about staying away from attic insulation or old pipe wrapping in basements, but are these concerns dated now that the world is more aware of the dangers of asbestos exposure?

Asbestos has been a part of the modern built world for more than a century because it is flame resistant, very long lasting and an excellent insulating material. Many compound materials benefit from asbestos because of its taut fiber form. When materials with asbestos are left alone, as manufactured and pressed or mixed together, asbestos can be pretty hard to break down. Using any process or pressure to cut, sand or dig into asbestos-containing parts, however, releases dust shards of fiber particles, launching the asbestos into the air. When the particles are breathed in, they are either subsequently released through exhaling, or they lodge themselves into the organs and air passageways, often causing lung diseases and abnormal, cancerous growths. Mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis are linked to asbestos exposure in the home and workplace, though since the late 1970s, bans and regulations have helped lessen the risks [sources: EPA, CPSC].

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Is asbestos just an old concern, or is it a continuing, modern problem? Could there be asbestos in your home? Maybe for sure, maybe not much and maybe none at all, but it's worth brushing up on the subject.

If your home was built in 1980 or later, it isn't likely to have asbestos components, and if it does, they would have to be labeled accordingly. Homes built before the 1970s likely do have asbestos in their construction materials, which might include the following:

  • insulation: attic and wall insulation in houses built from 1930 through 1950 (and homes with vermiculite insulation up through 1990)
  • heat-proofing surrounds: boards and wall and floor treatments around wood-burning stoves and older furnaces
  • heat and water pipes: exterior wraps and adhesives
  • floor and ceiling tiles: in sheet and drop-tile forms
  • roofing and siding: shingles and sheets with composites of concrete and asphalt
  • wall and ceiling treatments: thick, decorative or soundproofing coatings that resemble popcorn-like grooves or dried foam cottage cheese
  • walls, corners and gaps: joint compounds and patching materials commonly contained asbestos [source: EPA]

These are just some of the most common areas where asbestos products were used, and unfortunately, checking to see if it's in your own home isn't a matter of just eyeing the sources. Asbestos isn't identifiable by sight alone, and it's odorless and unlabeled if used before bans were instituted. Only testing at the microscopic level confirms the presence of asbestos, and this should always be left to a trained professional.

If you suspect that your home, whether a rental or owned property, has hidden asbestos or areas of asbestos dust, it's best to leave everything as is -- the EPA even advises against dusting or vacuuming suspect areas [source: EPA]. Most of all don't do anything abrasive to the area that could cause the release of particles if no dust is visible [source: EPA]. Contact an asbestos professional who can test and recommend ways to remove or cover and contain the asbestos materials if found.

Maybe you're fearful that asbestos is hanging out where you live. How worried should you be?

Living with asbestos is a reality for many who reside in older homes, but with containment, covering and sealing -- or encapsulation -- or removal by a professional, the risk of harmful exposure is low [source: EPA]. A joint paper by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the American Lung Association (ALA) summarizes the health risks as being greatest for those with heavy exposure in factory settings or those involved in demolition work, mining and milling. Those exposed to small amounts in ordinary life are a lot less likely to develop health problems [sources: CPSC, EPA]. In fact, the best thing to do with asbestos material in good condition is to leave it alone [source: CPSC].

Some individuals exposed to asbestos never develop health problems, but as many as 200 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma linked to asbestos in the United States each year [source: EPA]. Lung cancer and asbestosis, which is mostly fatal, is considered a high-exposure outcome for those who breathed in prolonged and significant amounts of asbestos [source: EPA]. And the EPA emphasizes that asbestos-related lung cancer is much lower for the general population and asbestosis is "rarely caused by neighborhood or family exposure" [source: EPA].

Most people in the United States can breathe a sigh of relief that asbestos contact will be minimal if asbestos in their home is left undisturbed or left to the professionals to remove or contain.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR). "Asbestos: Health Effects." Centers for Disease Control (CDC). April 1, 2008. (April 17, 2011)http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/asbestos/asbestos/health_effects/
  • Asbestos.com. "Asbestos Tiles, Ceiling Tiles, Vinyl Floor Tiles." 2011. (April 15, 2011)http://www.asbestos.com/products/general/tiles.php
  • Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). "Asbestos Ban Announced." CPSC.gov. Dec. 2, 1977. (Apr. 13, 2011)http://www.cpsc.gov/CPSCPUB/PREREL/prhtml77/77118.html
  • Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the American Lung Association (ALA). "Asbestos in the Home." CPSC Document #453, CPSC.gov. 2011. (Apr. 14, 2011)http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/453.html
  • Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). "Independent Analysis for CPSC Confirms Potential Health Threat Posed by Asbestos Hair Dryers." CPSC.gov. Nov. 2, 1979. (April 17, 2011)http://www.cpsc.gov/CPSCPUB/PREREL/prhtml79/79062.html
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Asbestos." Britannica.com. 2011. (April 8, 2011)http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/37756/asbestos
  • Howard University School of Law Fair Housing Clinic. "Asbestos." 2011. (April 15, 2011)http://www.howardfairhousing.org/additional_resources/62/410/413/
  • Minnesota Department of Health (MDH). "Asbestos: Homeowner Information, Roofing and Siding." 2011. (April 15, 2011)http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/asbestos/homeowner/roofside.html
  • National Cancer Institute. "Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk." 2011. (April 17, 2011)http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/asbestos
  • Princeton University. "Asbestos Fact Sheet." Princeton.edu, Environmental Health and Safety (EHS). April 13, 2006. (April 15, 2011)http://web.princeton.edu/sites/ehs/workplacesafety/asbestosfactsheet.htm
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "Asbestos." EPA.gov. June 18, 2010. (April 16, 2011)http://www.epa.gov/asbestos/
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "Asbestos: General." EPA.gov. April 7, 2011. (April 16, 2011)http://www.epa.gov/region6/6pd/asbestos/asbgenl.htm
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "Vermiculite." EPA.gov. June 7, 2010. (April 16, 2011)http://www.epa.gov/asbestos/pubs/verm.html
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "Asbestos Health Effects." EPA.gov. June 18, 2010. (April 16, 2011)http://www.epa.gov/asbestos/pubs/help.html#info
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "Asbestos in Your Home." EPA.gov. June 7, 2010. (April 15, 2011)http://www.epa.gov/asbestos/pubs/ashome.html
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "Where You Live: State and Regional Indoor Environments Contact Information." EPA.gov. Nov. 29, 2010. (April 16, 2011)http://www.epa.gov/iaq/whereyoulive.html
  • Woods, Amy Lamb. "Keeping a Lid on It: Asbestos-Cement Building Materials." Technical Preservation Services, NPS.gov. August 2000. (April 15, 2011)http://www.cr.nps.gov/hps/tps/recentpast/asbestosarticle.htm

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