Top Questions on Asbestos Answered
Many homeowners are concerned by the idea that their home could contain asbestos. Asbestos is a hazardous substance that can reside in building materials and has been linked to many health complications. Most often, people want to know where asbestos is found, and the potential risks of having asbestos in the home, in order to avoid the possibility of them or a loved one becoming ill. Here’s what you need to know about asbestos if you are a home buyer, seller, or remodeler.
What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a mineral that is mined from the earth. It has natural properties that make it an outstanding and low-cost fire retardant. It was added to many building products between the 1940s through the 1980s. The EPA outlawed asbestos in 1989, but the 5th circuit court of appeals overturned that ruling in 1991. While less common than it once was, the use of asbestos is still technically legal in the United States.
What Makes Asbestos so bad?
When the tiny coarse fibers of asbestos are inhaled into the lungs they can cause damage to the lung tissue. Over time, asbestos inhalation can lead to asbestosis (a lung disease), cancer, and mesothelioma – an aggressive form of cancer that affects the lungs, heart, and abdomen. Construction workers and manufacturers are among those most affected, as they have historically worked in close proximity to asbestos-containing materials. According to the Department of Labor, there is no safe level of asbestos.
It’s important to understand a few basic concepts about asbestos-containing materials in your home. If the building material in question is not damaged or “friable,” then the asbestos fibers will not likely be able to become air-borne particulate. The asbestos will be encapsulated in the building material and will not likely create a health hazard. For this reason, most old homes may not pose an asbestos-related health hazard to the occupants living there. If the asbestos fibers are not likely to become airborne, then the area is likely considered safe.
Where is Asbestos Found?
Some common building materials that contain asbestos include, but are not limited to:
- Cement siding
- 9”x9” floor tiles
- Acoustic ceiling tiles
- White tape on heating ducts
- Insulation on boiler pipes and boilers
- Popcorn ceiling
- Glues used under flooring
Vermiculite insulation has been deemed one of the more dangerous types of materials. This loose insulation, which is often found in your attic, looks like small rocks or bits of mica. Much of this insulation came from a mine in Libby Montana and the vermiculite was contaminated with asbestos. Vermiculite can aerosolize easily, exposing occupants or workers to its unsafe effects. In addition, tests to verify the presence of asbestos in vermiculite have proven unreliable. It is best to assume this product contains asbestos and consider having it remediated by a professional to reduce risks of exposure.
How do I Know if I Have Asbestos in My Home?
If you are buying a house older than 1980 (and in some cases even newer), you can assume it probably contains at least some asbestos. If you are planning on remodeling or making renovations to your home it would be a good idea to test for asbestos. You may want to perform an inspection to look for damaged materials which may contain asbestos and have these remediated or encapsulated – especially if you have some reasons for concern like visibly damaged pipe insulation or old building materials.
If you are remodeling an old house, the risk of exposure is much greater. Prior to construction, you should have a full evaluation done by a professional. You can hire an industrial hygienist or an environmental testing company to perform an evaluation of the house. These contractors follow a comprehensive testing protocol and will often take more than a dozen samples from the building. Once you have the results you should know what materials in your home contain asbestos as well as how to safely remove them from your home.
Is Asbestos Identification Included in a Home Inspection?
Home inspectors are not able to identify the presence of asbestos in your home due to the fact that the inspection is often visual and non-invasive. Many home inspectors will report the presence of building materials that are likely to contain asbestos. If your inspector reports the possibility of asbestos in your home building materials it may be wise to have a comprehensive asbestos identification inspection done.
A complete asbestos evaluation often involves destructive testing where samples are drilled, scraped or pried from the building. If you were to get this evaluation done before purchasing the home, you would need to get permission from the homeowners, which is not always approved. Home inspectors are prohibited from damaging the buildings they are inspecting, making it particularly difficult to inspect for asbestos-containing materials in a comprehensive way as a part of a pre-purchase home inspection. This is another reason why asbestos evaluation is generally not completed as part of the pre-purchase due diligence.
Does a Home Seller have to Disclose Asbestos?
Most states don’t require that single-family homeowners test for asbestos prior to selling their home. However, if you knowingly sell a home with asbestos without revealing that information to the buyer, you could be held liable for health-related damages in the future. It is best to check your local regulations as these laws vary by state.
Is it Legal to Remodel a Home with Asbestos?
The biggest risk posed by asbestos is during a remodel or renovation to an old house. When the building materials that contain asbestos get damaged and are made airborne, the people working on the home, and living in it, become susceptible to exposure.
Laws regarding asbestos will vary by state but many states will require:
- Homeowners to test for asbestos prior to any construction or renovation project
- Asbestos remediation to be done by licensed abatement contractors prior to starting demolition work
- Contractors to obtain a written asbestos report from a building owner prior to work
- Asbestos-containing materials be disposed of in special containers for hazardous waste
If you are planning to renovate your home, consider testing for lead and asbestos. If you have time to do this evaluation before buying the house, that is great. In hot markets, home buyers often have very limited time to complete their inspections so many buyers proceed with the logical assumption that the building contains asbestos and they will need to tackle it prior to renovation.
Many homes built in the 20th century contain some level of asbestos. If you discover asbestos in your home don’t panic, it is normally safe to live in if you are not planning renovations. If you are planning on making changes to your home, you will need to check your local laws and hire the right professionals to assess the home and dispose of the waste correctly. Knowing the facts about asbestos is very important and can help keep you and your loved ones out of harm’s way.
Author bio: Jennifer Karami is a writer at Redfin, a technology-enabled real estate brokerage whose mission is to redefine real estate in the customer’s favor.