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Asbestos in the Home – What Now?

There are several dirty words in the English language. In remodeling there are but two: lead and asbestos. Lead is fairly well taken care of, being primarily an extinct ingredient of house paints. Asbestos, however, presents a tougher problem, primarily because it is found in so many building products: not only paints but flooring, insulation, roofing and siding. Due to its pervasiveness, asbestos still resonates with many remodelers today, even after years of knowledge about its harmful effects. So it begs the question from so many homeowners, “What now?”

Good question.

Where is asbestos?

There are several places you might find asbestos in the home.

  • Asbestos blankets and tape used as insulation around steam pipes, boilers, and furnace ducts.
  • Backing on vinyl floor tiles and vinyl sheet flooring.
  • Insulation or wall board around furnaces and wood-burning stoves.
  • Roofing and siding shingles made from asbestos cement.
  • Old, textured paints may contain asbestos. Paints containing asbestos were banned in 1977.
  • Gloves, hot pads, and ironing board covers.

What do I do?

If you find or suspect asbestos in your home, don’t freak out. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the oft best thing to do with asbestos is nothing. Materials that are still in good condition will usually not emit asbestos fibers, the harmful and breathable dust that causes so many respiratory problems and, possibly, cancer.

Nonetheless, the EPA outlines two basic precautions should you suspect asbestos in an area of the house.

  1. Don’t touch it and

  2. Check it regularly for wear and tear.

In addition, there is a big difference between suspecting asbestos and identifying it. Leaving it alone is all well and fine until you want to finish the basement or pull up the old flooring. When a suspected asbestos-containing material gets in the way of your remodel the safest course of action is to have a sample analyzed (unless, of course, it’s written right on it). Having a professional take a look at it is the wisest choice. A professional will know what to look for and how to handle what they find.

When you’ve made certain that you have asbestos, there are two things you can do about it: repair it or remove it.

Repair

Sealing, or encapsulation, is the first of two ways to repair the problem. It involves coating the material with a binding sealant that will prevent the release of fibers. The second repair strategy is covering, or placing something over the asbestos-laden material to prevent fiber release. While repair is typically cheaper and faster than removal, drawbacks include the logistical hang-ups that will result should you try to remodel later on. Removal, after repair, will be more costly and time-consuming.

Removal

It is tempting to just get rid of the problem, but this is not always the best solution. That old adage, “Some things are better left alone,” quite often rings true regarding asbestos. However, remodeling or renovation often negate such a strategy. Quick removal becomes your only choice. But do not start tearing out asbestos insulation or tearing off siding that contains asbestos cement. Trained professionals should handle removal. In fact, some states and cities require it. You may be able to find asbestos-trained contractors via your local or state health departments or regional EPA offices.

Relax

Lucky for most of us these days, asbestos is a dead product. Yet remodelers are most likely to discover it in or around the home. “So what now?” Stop and check it out. It may be tempting, what with that dream of a new basement swimming through your head, to just grab the sledgehammer and risk it. But there are good, healthy reasons why asbestos is no longer in use; primarily the health of families and workers. The extra money and time now will reap benefits (i.e., clear breathing and longevity) later.

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