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Does Asbestos, One of Nature's Most Useful Minerals, Deserve its Bad Reputation??

Asbestos is inescapable.  It is in our homes, our schools, in the water and soil.   You breathe it, drink it, and eat it every day.  It is feared, and rightly so... it has dangerous properties.  But fear must be molded into respect... asbestos is not a harbinger of Armageddon.  Knowledge, as always, is your sharpest sword... ignorance, your biggest danger.

What is asbestos, and why should I care?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral found in many parts of the world, mined primarily in Canada, South Africa and the United States. Nearly 3/4 of the world's supply comes from Quebec, Canada.  It has been used since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans and was prized for its heat resistant properties.   Used to insulate the boilers of steam locomotives in the 1930's, asbestos was not in widespread use until the 1940's.  After World War II, the asbestos industry in the US grew dramatically.  According to the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) , in that time over 100,000 schools and 700,000 public and commercial buildings used asbestos for insulation, decoration and fireproofing.

We know now what they did not know then... that there are a number of potentially fatal diseases related to inhalation of asbestos fibers including mesothelioma, asbestosis, interstitial fibrosis, pneumoconiosis and lung cancer. Those affected by these diseases should consult a firm such as Baron and Budd.

Asbestos is literally everywhere!  According to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), more than 40% of the land area and much of the drinking water of the US contains some level of naturally occurring asbestos.

So why this 30 year love affair?  Asbestos has qualities that set it apart from any other material.  It is virtually indestructible; it does not decompose or decay; it is a poor conductor of electricity; it is resistant to heat, chemicals, and water.  Like the proverbial "bad penny", you just can't get rid of it!!   It exists in microscopic fibers of varying sizes. When mixed with other materials, it passes on its insulating properties while adding its fibrous strength.

Modern uses of asbestos... a "short" list

Building and construction:

Sprayed-on insulation and rustproofing for steel beams in large buildings; heat insulation for pipes, furnaces, boilers and ductwork; loose fill, blown and sprayed wall or ceiling insulation; soundproofing; ceiling tiles; asphalt floor tiles; the backing on vinyl sheet flooring; various adhesives for carpet, tile and general construction; wallboard and wallboard patching compounds; caulks, spackles and putties;  heat resistant adhesive compounds such as furnace cement; concrete and Portland cement products (including cement wallboard); chalkboards; cement fresh water and drain pipes; exterior siding on homes; fire doors; roofing shingles; paints and texture coatings on walls and ceilings; plaster; wiring insulation and fabrics.

Other non-construction uses are:

Automotive and elevator brake linings and clutch pads, high temperature gaskets, heat-proof gloves, fire blankets and protective clothing, stovetop heat resistant pads; paper products; and plastics.

You can now understand why asbestos became so widely used that it has touched all our lives.  The asbestos story, however,  has a dark side.

And now, the bad news...

Even the brightest clouds have a dark lining and, with asbestos, the dark lining was within the human lung.  The unique dangers of asbestos were ignored by the industry but were painfully obvious to those who worked in the mines or produced asbestos products.   Asbestos workers were exposed to large amounts of airborne asbestos and brought the dust into their homes for their families to inhale or ingest in their food.

We know now what they did not know then... that there are a number of potentially fatal diseases related to inhalation of asbestos fibers including mesothelioma, asbestosis, interstitial fibrosis, pneumoconiosis and lung cancer.   Though the connection is less strong, many physicians believe that cancers of the digestive system and other organs may be related to the ingestion of asbestos through contaminated food and water supplies.  Because the onset of these diseases can take up to 30 years, their connection to asbestos inhalation was painfully slow in coming.

Studies also show a deadly connection between asbestos exposure and cigarette smoking.  The chance of lung disease nearly doubles in a smoker who is also exposed to asbestos.  In my research for this article, I stumbled across a medical questionnaire from OSHA for employees in the asbestos industry.  14 pages long, its purpose is to begin a health record to track potential harm caused by working with asbestos.  Almost a third of the form deals with cigarette, cigar, and pipe smoking habits and history emphasizing the serious nature of this interaction.  The value of the information obtained is enormous... it will allow OSHA to monitor the real physical effects of asbestos industry safety rules worker by worker while eliminating the warped results caused by a worker's smoking habits.

Enter the lawyers and Federal regulation... stage left

The day of reckoning did finally arrive in the 1930's with the first lawsuits.  Legal maneuvering continues into the present as more victims step forward to claim compensation for exposure to asbestos in buildings, in the construction/demolition industries and through the mishandling of asbestos-containing products.

The judicial frenzy reached its peak in 1986 when the EPA proposed an immediate ban on the use of asbestos in certain products and a total ban within 10 years.  Over time cooler heads prevailed... via the Supreme Court... as the studies revealed that a more conservative approach was necessary to both preserve public safety and to not lay waste to an entire industry that, in fact, provided a product both useful and safe when used in an intelligent manner.  Rather, the court ruled to overturn most of the EPA's ban, and instead limited the ban to include 1) the development of new uses for asbestos and 2) the reintroduction of asbestos into industries where it had been replaced by other products.

A body of evidence has emerged showing that exposure must reach fairly high levels over extended periods of time before evidence of disease is manifested. One of the best sources of this "politically incorrect" information came from the industry, via THE ASBESTOS INSTITUTE (interesting, their website has disappeared). One of their more frightening lines of argument is that many of the products used to replace asbestos may in fact be as bad or worse from a public health perspective.  Though it is always wise to be a little skeptical of industry sources, they are like other industries under siege... trying to put forth a reasoned and strongly referenced argument for safe and sane use of their products.  A similar skepticism must also be had for the opposition, the worldwide Ban Asbestos movement, which uses government regulation as its sword and shield.  Somewhere between these groups lays the truth concerning the balance of risk and benefit to asbestos use.

Currently, most Federal regulation involves the handling and disposal of asbestos currently in use.  The asbestos industry in the US has been severely curtailed as manufacturers, suffering from the effects of extreme but necessary regulation,  have turned to less regulated alternative materials.  Asbestos-containing products are still manufactured and sold in the US, but manufacture, distribution and installation is strongly regulated by the EPA.  You need not worry that you will accidentally purchase a product containing asbestos... larger-than-life warnings must be conspicuously posted on them!

Virtually every school, business and government agency that has responsibility for a building has an asbestos policy.  Some colleges have Websites devoted to the asbestos problem at their schools, how they are coping with it, and guidelines for students if they may have had contact with asbestos-laden materials (such as if your roomy puts your head through the ceiling).

There is asbestos, and then there is asbestos... and all asbestos is not dangerous!

Asbestos a not a single, easily categorized substance such as carbon monoxide or radon.  It occurs in a number of different forms and the risks posed by them vary considerably... from minimal to severe. Crocidolite and amosite asbestos, known as amphibole asbestos, are the most dangerous forms.  Their fibers cling tenaciously to lung tissue while resisting the body's natural self-cleaning processes.  This long term irritation to body tissue can lead to disease and death. Fortunately, these forms of asbestos have been banned for years though some may still exist in older homes.

Chrysotile asbestos, a less toxic form, comprises over 90% of all the asbestos used in the US.   This form of asbestos is not nearly as persistent in lung tissue and low level intermittent exposure is not considered to be a health risk to a healthy person.

In fact, both OSHA and the EPA concur that asbestos is not dangerous unless airborne.

Even if airborne, many studies of asbestos workers indicate that it takes more than a casual exposure to asbestos dust to cause disease... even over periods as long as 15 to 30 years!  Asbestos doesn't "radiate" danger and its mere existence in low levels in your environment is not automatically cause for alarm.

Before you get yourself all wound up... is that weird stuff REALLY asbestos?

So here we are.  Or should I say, there you are.  In your home.  Starting a project.  Should you be concerned about asbestos?  What can you do to safeguard yourself and your home?  Should you hire a professional or do-it-yourself?

In the US, any home built after 1980 is very likely asbestos free.  And though an asbestos professional may be able to recognize asbestos, you probably can't.   Sure, if your home if 50 years old and there is a solid whitish jacket over your furnace or heating pipes, you can bet it is probably asbestos.  But to know for sure, especially with manufactured materials like floor tiles, wallboard or siding, you need to have testing done.

Here are some guidelines on how to collect an asbestos sample and what to do with it... courtesy of the EPA:

How To Identify Materials That Contain Asbestos

You can't tell whether a material contains asbestos simply by looking at it, unless it is labeled. If in doubt, treat the material as if it contains asbestos or have it sampled and analyzed by a qualified professional. A professional should take samples for analysis, since a professional knows what to look for, and because there may be an increased health risk if fibers are released. In fact, if done incorrectly, sampling can be more hazardous than leaving the material alone.

Taking samples yourself is not recommended. If you nevertheless choose to take the samples yourself, take care not to release asbestos fibers into the air or onto yourself. Material that is in good condition and will not be disturbed (by remodeling, for example) should be left alone. Only material that is damaged or will be disturbed should be sampled. Anyone who samples asbestos-containing materials should have as much information as possible on the handling of asbestos before sampling, and at a minimum, should observe the following procedures:

  • Make sure no one else is in the room when sampling is done.
  • Wear disposable gloves or wash hands after sampling.
  • Shut down any heating or cooling systems to minimize the spread of any released fibers.
  • Do not disturb the material any more than is needed to take a small sample.
  • Place a plastic sheet on the floor below the area to be sampled.
  • Wet the material using a fine mist of water containing a few drops of detergent before taking the sample. The water/detergent mist will reduce the release of asbestos fibers.
  • Carefully cut a piece from the entire depth of the material using, for example, a small knife, corer, or other sharp object. Place the small piece into a clean container (for example, a 35 mm film canister, small glass or plastic vial, or high quality resealable plastic bag).
  • Tightly seal the container after the sample is in it.
  • Carefully dispose of the plastic sheet. Use a damp paper towel to clean up any material on the outside of the container or around the area sampled. Dispose of asbestos materials according to state and local procedures.
  • Label the container with an identification number and clearly state when and where the sample was taken.
  • Patch the sampled area with the smallest possible piece of duct tape to prevent fiber release.
  • Send the sample to an EPA-approved laboratory for analysis. The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) has a list of these laboratories. You can get this list from the Laboratory Accreditation Administration, NIST, Gaithersburg, MD 20899 (telephone 301-975-4016). Your state or local health department may also be able to help.

Oh no, keep me away from sharp objects...  I FOUND ASBESTOS IN MY HOME!! What now?

Calm down.  Just because asbestos has been used in your home does not necessarily mean you are at risk.  Remember what was said earlier... if the asbestos is solid and not releasing particles into the air, the consensus is that there is no discernable risk to health.  If there is a small release, the risk may also be minimal to nonexistent, though again testing is required to know for sure.

Handling asbestos is simple:  don't handle it at all if possible!   In the early days of asbestos abatement, the conventional wisdom was that it should be completely removed from buildings and schools.  In classic overreaction, people were thinking of asbestos as if it was radioactive... even having it near their children was unacceptable.  The end result?  This helter skelter removal increased the problem as the dangerous hard-to-control asbestos dust got into literally everything.   Modern techniques generally call for sealing or encapsulating the asbestos so that it cannot release fibers into the atmosphere.  Only when the asbestos cannot be sealed, or in the cases of renovation or demolition, is removal considered a reasonable option.

Is asbestos removal a job for the do-it-yourselfer?

I dread saying this... but no.  Current federal regulations have effectively made do-it-yourself asbestos removal impossible to do legally, which means... hiring a professional.  According to Steven Talevi, president of Talevi Enterprises, a Connecticut-based asbestos abatement firm with over 20 years of experience, "improper handling of asbestos-containing materials can lead to costly clean-ups, state and federal investigations, potential criminal charges, and fines."  He also noted that in Connecticut, a person either removing or sealing more than 3 feet of asbestos must have an asbestos contractor's license.

Since both the individual states and the Federal government have regulations concerning asbestos, your chance of violating one of the hundreds of laws is almost certain if you attempt to handle asbestos as another do-it-yourself project.  Here are a few tips to help you to be sure that the person you hire is qualified to do the work and, hopefully, will leave you with a little money in your wallet:

  • Find out how many years the contractor has been in business.  Only the best contractors will survive the complexity of asbestos law and the difficult nature of the abatement procedure.  Don't be anyone's guinea pig... only use an experienced contractor!
  • Require that the contractor produce written documentation that he has completed a state or federally-approved training program, and is properly registered with your state, if required.  If he hem's and haw's on this one, throw that business card right down the garbage disposal (with lots of water, of course)!
  • Ask for references from previous clients to learn if they were satisfied with the quality, neatness and promptness of the work.  If the contractor gives you "that look", politely say goodbye and have Jeeves show him to the door.
  • Get a thorough written description of the work to be performed.  This is vital for future reference if there are problems or misunderstandings.  This will give you a realistic way to compare quotes and methodologies from different contractors.
  • Get more than one opinion and quote.  One contractor  may determine that sealing the asbestos is preferred, while another may want to completely remove it!  Remember... sealing is the method of choice.  Removal should only be done when sealing is illegal, impractical or impossible.

Free Asbestos Compliance Software from OSHA...

The Asbestos Advisor 2.0 is a software program designed to help building owners determine if they are in compliance with current regulations.  Though not intended for residential use, it may provide some useful information for homeowners.  And what the heck... new software is always fun, sometimes educational and perhaps even thought provoking... whatever!

You can download the program from OSHA at http://www.osha.gov/dts/osta/oshasoft/asbestos

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Jerry Alonzy, the founder of Naturalhandyman.com

Written by Jerry Alonzy

Jerry Alonzy, a.k.a. the Natural Handyman, has been an active handyman for over 30 years with experience in most areas of home repair and renovation.

As a do-it-yourself author and web developer since 1995, he has been featured in USA Today, the Today Show and on radio shows, magazines, newspapers and websites. His material appears widely on the web, but primarily on his website... The Natural Handyman. You can also find him on Google+.