Risk of Asbestos in Home Remodels

By Todd Fratzel on Safety

Asbestos Risk Guest Article

The following is a guest article by Ben Stillwater

The scourge of asbestos exposure has always been about the microscopic fibers that asbestos materials can give off when they deteriorate or are disturbed in some fashion by cutting, tearing, sanding or scraping.   Microscopic asbestos fibers that make their way into the body through inhalation are the only known cause of asbestosis and mesothelioma cancer.  Both diseases took down tens of thousands of workers who were exposed to asbestos products during careers in the twentieth century.  Although the manufacture of construction materials containing asbestos has all but ceased, millions of homes and commercial structure still contain substantial amounts of asbestos products.  That’s the risk for today’s professional tradesmen who are remodeling homes, replacing heating systems or demolishing older structures.

DIY home remodel jobs present the most likely occurrence for risky exposure to asbestos, largely because many home owners don’t know what to look for.  A list of prominent asbestos products used in the construction of homes before 1975 would include floor tiles and the adhesive used to put them down, linoleum, spackling, joint compound, plaster, cement, some roofing materials, insulation for walls, pipes and HVAC ducts, and some forms of siding.  That’s a partial list but one that includes common materials which can raise plenty of asbestos-laden dust when tackled by the uninformed. Here’s a page of photographs that show multiple asbestos household products – much more useful than a description.

Flooring

The first step is to try and determine what components of the building you’re working on contain asbestos.  Your city or county planning agency should be able to point you towards a testing facility.  Building inspectors know a lot about material disposal.  Most government agencies will recommend that you hire a licensed asbestos contractor to remove dangerous materials, but for a lot of us that isn’t feasible.  Here are some suggestions for managing potential asbestos exposure.

You should invest in protective equipment, and that means more than goggles and a paper respiratory mask.  Here is a list of suggested jobsite apparel courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Health.  The removal process requires caution and disposing of the material is also going to require taking it to a special dumpsite.  Instructions on removing the flooring, sealing off the work area and finding a disposal site can be found here, again furnished by the State of Minnesota.

Insulation

The primary value of asbestos for commercial use has been its insulating properties and its resistance to fire.  For those reasons it was use in household insulation for decades.  If your house is old enough to be a candidate for asbestos insulation and if you don’t plant to remove walls, your best choice may be sealing it off.  If, however, that insulation is blown in and/or is in danger of exposure from remodeling efforts, you should consider having a professional remove it.  That’s not a DIY job with acceptable risk.  Here’s an article on how to recognize asbestos insulation from an unlikely source: the New York Times.

Siding

Asbestos shingles and asbestos cement sheets were popular siding materials during their day, indestructible and decent insulation.  Today they are neither attractive nor terribly desirable, as any outdoor product is going to begin to deteriorate and in the case of cement, that means crumbling.  Once again, most authorities recommend professional removal.  However if you’re going to tackle it yourself, here is a guide to the process published by the State of Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

Roofing

Asbestos roofing comes in all sorts of formats: tiles, shingles, and petroleum based spray on products that require some chemistry to break loose.  It’s not a project for the casual weekend do-it-yourselfer, but it’s one that’s manageable if you are prepared to invest in the equipment necessary.  If the roofing material is “friable,” which means it’s deteriorated to the point that it is crumbling, the risks of the job multiply.  Here is an article on removing asbestos roofs published by the State of Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

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Article Source: Ben Stillwater is a freelance writer for Asbestos News, an online resource on asbestos and mesothelioma information.

About the author

Todd Fratzel

I'm full time builder for a large construction company in New Hampshire. I run their design-build division that specializes in custom homes, commercial design-build projects and sub-divisions. I'm also a licensed civil and structural engineer with extensive experience in civil and structural design and home construction. My hope is that I can share my experience in the home construction, home improvement and home renovation profession with other builders and home owners. I'm also the Editor-in-Chief and Founder of Tool Box Buzz. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions, suggestions or you'd like to inquire about advertising on this site.

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