by Don Vandervort, © HomeTips
In 1977, the official state rock of California was found to cause cancer. Asbestos—a building product hailed throughout most of the 20th century as a “wonder fiber”—was killing workers who had breathed its microscopic dust in mines, asbestos plants, and shipyards decades after their exposure.
When the Environmental Protection Agency discovered this, it began restricting its use.
This natural mineral, drawn from serpentine rock, stands up to intense temperatures. Prior to its toxic-waste status, its outstanding resistance to heat, combined with its fibrous makeup and low cost, ushered it into the manufacture of thousands of products from toasters to ductwork for more than 60 years.
With the discovery of asbestos hazards, an estimated 25 million American homes gained a new kind of poltergeist: an invisible menace that may or may not be floating in the air and that is—at the very least—a scary thought. Though the EPA restricted its use as a building material in the 1970s and proposed a 10-year phase-out of products containing asbestos in 1986, people living in homes built and using products manufactured before 1970 are understandably concerned.
In addition, lending institutions and real estate buyers are balking at properties that contain asbestos hazards. According to P.W. Stephens Residential, Inc., a California-based asbestos abatement service, “It’s becoming a liability issue. If you expose future home buyers to a known hazard or sell a property without full disclosure, you’re setting yourself up for a lawsuit.”
Do small amounts of asbestos in your home really pose a health threat? How can you determine whether or not your home contains asbestos? If it does, what should you do about it? You may be surprised to learn that asbestos is relatively easy to identify and, if it presents an immediate hazard, can be dealt with manageably. If you would rather cut to the chase and find a local, prescreened asbestos abatement contractor, please click here.
The Health Risks
To date, most research has centered around asbestos workers, with whom it has been proven that chronic breathing of asbestos fibers causes permanent scarring of the lungs (“asbestosis”), lung cancer, and mesothelioma (a rare cancer of the intestinal tract and lungs). At present, however, no definitive research links disease to incidental exposure in the home.
This doesn't necessarily mean there’s no risk. Data are difficult to gather in so broad a segment of the population, particularly because health problems may show up 30 to 40 years after exposure. A growing number of doctors and researchers are concerned about the long-term effects of low-level exposure. As a rule, asbestos fibers tend to attach themselves permanently to lung tissue; long-term, residual accumulation might catch up with you. The prudent assumption, voiced by Lee Thomas, former administrator of the EPA, is that there is “no safe exposure” to airborne asbestos.
Must Asbestos Be Removed?
Not all asbestos is necessarily dangerous. Of the millions of homes that contain asbestos, only a fraction actually contains hazardous airborne asbestos fibers.
According to the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina, a not-for-profit research organization presently studying the effects of asbestos, the hazard of airborne asbestos fibers “depends to a great extent on the condition of the material, how often people go into the room where it’s located, and how much air moves through the space.”
It’s when asbestos is exposed and friable—flaking or crumbling—that it’s likely to become airborne. Both the EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommend leaving asbestos alone unless it’s friable.
Asbestos materials in good shape often can be “encapsulated” by an asbestos abatement contractor to add a layer of protection. This involves coating asbestos with an EPA-approved heat-resistant paint or sealant, which creates a protective barrier and converts surface fibers into a safer form. Be advised that encapsulating can be temporary and almost as expensive as removal, depending upon the project, and may make later removal more difficult.
To protect pipes or ducts that are sound from future damage, they can be enclosed in walls or boxed. If asbestos is enclosed, the fibers usually aren’t released into the air and therefore don’t present an immediate hazard.
Friable asbestos that is beyond repair should be removed by a qualified asbestos abatement contractor. Hourly rates generally run from $200 to $400; estimates are usually quoted by the job. Find a local, prescreened asbestos abatement contractor here.
Where to Look & What to Do if You Find Asbestos
Asbestos is usually off-white; less common types are blue or brown. Its appearance generally depends upon the material it was mixed with to make it workable: cement, polymers, starch, asphalt, or other binders.
Here’s where to look for asbestos and what to do if you find it:
Heating ductwork. Some ducts are made largely of asbestos; other metal ducts are wrapped with a cellulose-asbestos, air-cell insulation. Both look a bit like off-white corrugated cardboard. Asbestos sheeting insulation has a similar appearance but not the corrugations. In addition, registers may have asbestos taping inside.
Ductwork made of asbestos is a major concern because, when it begins to deteriorate, fibers are blown into the house. Talk with an asbestos abatement contractor about removal. Removing ductwork costs from $12 to $25 per lineal foot—from $1,000 to $2,000 for a standard-sized basement. New ductwork is an additional cost.
Wrapped ducts should be removed if the wrapping is friable. A stopgap measure for duct wrapping that’s sound is to have it encapsulated.
The furnace may have an asbestos lining at the base or sit on an asbestos pad. A special asbestos cloth may join the furnace or boiler to the ductwork. If any of these are exposed to damage, they should be encapsulated or removed.
Plumbing. Some pipes, particularly those connected to radiators or steam heaters, are jacketed with asbestos. Asbestos pipe wrap, often covered with canvas, has a crumbly white surface. If the pipe wrap has small holes, it’s generally better to repair it than remove it. The holes can be caulked and then the pipe wrapped with rewettable glass cloth. Don’t use duct tape as it will not hold over time.
Wiring. Be wary of old knob-and-tube wires that have a white coating covered with black fabric. If you’re remodeling, avoid having these old wires pulled out; instead, have new wiring bypass them.
Fireplace. Artificial logs or ashes manufactured prior to 1978 probably contain flaking asbestos. The ashes are a serious concern; remove them immediately. The logs don’t release fibers unless they’re friable.
Wood-stove gaskets and protective panels for wood stoves or ovens may look like grayish-white stone. If they are exposed to damage, remove and replace them with an acceptable material.
Crawlspace or basement floor. Remember that fibers may have collected on the ground or floor beneath ductwork or piping. Have this area cleaned by a trained asbestos abatement professional or—if you must—wet mop the area. Never sweep or vacuum up asbestos fibers—they are about 1,000th the thickness of a human hair and will go right through a household vacuum and into the air.
Walls & ceilings. Sprayed acoustical (“cottage cheese”) ceilings generally have a very low percentage of asbestos, though some may contain as much as 40 percent. Avoid doing anything that will loosen the material (for example, don’t sweep the ceiling). Removal can be quite expensive (from $5 to $30 per square foot).
Most patching plaster and drywall joint compounds until 1979 contained a small amount of asbestos. Avoid scraping or sanding them.
Some plaster walls in older homes contain blown-in insulation that includes asbestos; it looks like hard cotton. Only have this removed during a remodel.
Flooring. Even recently manufactured vinyl floor tiles contain a modest amount of asbestos. Because it is ingrained in the material, it doesn’t pose a threat. The tile and its felt backing only become a problem during a remodel. Don’t sand or scrape these materials. Rather than remove old vinyl flooring, if possible cover it with underlayment and then add the new floor.
Roofing & siding. Some older shingles are made from asbestos mixed with cement or asphalt. Asphalt-asbestos shingles don’t release fibers easily; asbestos-cement shingles can, so be careful during a remodel. Avoid breaking or crumbling either kind. Roofing tars and felts also contain asbestos but, again, are unlikely to release fibers unless damaged.
Qualified asbestos abatement inspectors or some plumbing and heating contractors can help locate suspect materials. A lab test of a sample from the material—generally under $50—can give you a definitive answer as to whether or not the material contains asbestos.
The EPA has a toll-free number you can call for laboratories who will do this work, including instructions for obtaining and packaging the sample.
Though some states require licensing of asbestos abatement contractors, some don’t. Unscrupulous contractors might sell you a bill of goods you don’t need or do a shoddy job. A fly-by-night contractor may leave airborne asbestos levels that measure three to four times higher than before the job. If this happens, clean-up costs can be astronomical.
Familiarity with the information given here will help you in your interviews. You can also contact your regional office of the EPA for more information. Determine the level of training your contractor has had and request references. If your state has a licensing program, be sure your contractor is certified. If no certification program exists, get proof that workers have been trained in an EPA-approved program.
Be sure to get several estimates, and be wary of any that are exceptionally low or high.
Case Study: Asbestos-Wrapped Ductwork Removal
by Don Vandervort, HomeTips.com
During a recent remodeling project that involved adding new rooms, my outdated heating system became a problem. Our noisy, inefficient furnace was on its last legs and the ducts were wrapped with asbestos. State law prevented air-conditioning contractors from modifying the system, so the time had come to remove the ductwork and replace the furnace.
Two air-conditioning contractors had recommended one asbestos abatement company, so that’s the one I called first. This firm gave me a ballpark estimate over the phone based on the number of registers in the house: one day at the daily minimum of $1,025. For comparison shopping, I called a couple of other firms listed under “Asbestos Removal” in the telephone directory. Their prices were comparable, so I made an appointment for the first company’s estimator to come to the house.
The estimator checked the condition of the ducts and measured their lengths. He found a few separations and showed me where the asbestos was friable. Following his written confirmation of his phone estimate, we scheduled a removal date.
Here’s what happened:
First, the workers taped plastic sheeting over all the heat registers, sealed up cracks and openings in the floor (around the kitchen pipes, for example), and sealed the perimeter of the basement crawlspace where the ductwork was located. Once the crawlspace was reasonably airtight, they connected a large, clear hose between a vent hole in the exterior wall and a sophisticated vacuum system. When this vacuum was switched on, it created a negative air space under the house that drew all ambient air out through special filters in the vacuum, cleaning the air and preventing the tainted air from moving back into the house.
They assembled three plastic-pipe frames, each the size of a small closet, and then encased them with polyethylene sheeting. These three chambers, when joined together and sealed at the crawlspace doorway, became a kind of “air lock” between the hazardous and safe areas. After removing the ductwork, they would enter the first chamber to remove coveralls and gear, hose down in the center room, and dress in the outer, clean room.
They took air samples from the hazardous area before, during, and after their work. These were taken to a lab, and the results were made available to us the next day.
A trained inspector from the company inspected and approved the workmanship after the crawlspace was sealed off and after ductwork removal.
Before entering the area, the workers stepped into special, disposable coveralls that bagged even their feet and included a hood. They wrapped duct tape at their ankles, collars, and heads to make the fit as tight as possible, and then they pulled on disposable respirators.
Under the house, they first sprayed a water mist to settle any dust. Then they sprayed the entire area with an “encapsulant” that converted the hazardous asbestos fibers into solid, safer form.
They disconnected the ductwork from the register boots and furnace, crushed them, and bagged them in large, doubled poly-bags. Ductwork running up into walls was left intact (because it was enclosed, it wasn’t a hazard), and they painted the boot stubs with a heavy, latex-based coating.
When all removal of the ductwork was complete, they sprayed the entire area again with the encapsulant.
They tagged and coded the bagged hazardous waste and gave me a manifest listing the number of bags to be properly disposed of.
The next day, they had the air-quality results ready (asbestos fiber count was below hazardous levels) and gave me permission to unseal the area.
I may never know whether or not removing the ductwork was necessary. I do know, however, that if I sell the house someday, the presence of asbestos won’t drag down the sale price. And, in the meantime, we are enjoying efficient heating throughout the house, confident that the basement area is totally safe.
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