Looking to knock down walls, scrape off popcorn ceilings, pull out old floor tiles, or clear out the insulation in the attic? While do-it-yourself projects like these are popular, they could potentially be hazardous to your health.  The reason? Each of these materials may contain asbestos. And when disturbed, asbestos products may fill the air you breathe with tiny, invisible, toxic asbestos fibers, which are known to cause cancer and other health problems.

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that is mined from the earth.  It grows from serpentine rock when the rock is broken or crushed. Asbestos fibers are tiny and invisible to the human eye.  For many decades, asbestos was considered a “miracle mineral” because it doesn’t burn, doesn’t corrode, is very strong, and is an excellent insulator.  It is also relatively inexpensive. As a result, asbestos was used extensively in construction and manufacturing for decades, with its peak use in the 1940-1970 time period. Thousands of consumer products were made with asbestos, including automobile clutches and brakes, hair dryers, heat-resistant fabrics, and more.  Any residential structure built between 1920 and 1978 probably contains numerous products or materials containing asbestos fibers.

What Are the Health Effects From Asbestos Exposure?

In the 1970s, researchers discovered that when asbestos materials are disturbed or damaged, asbestos fibers can be released into the air and inhaled or ingested, which can lead to serious health problems, including lung cancer, mesothelioma (cancer), asbestosis (a serious progressive, long-term, non-cancer disease of the lungs), and possibly other types of cancer. Less serious, non-life-threatening conditions like pleural plaques, pleural effusion, and pleural thickening, may also develop from asbestos exposure. Asbestos accumulates in the lungs over a person’s lifetime and does not ever clear the body. Typically asbestos-related diseases have a long latency or dormancy period, so health problems may show up decades after exposure.

Isn’t Asbestos Banned?

Asbestos is regulated, but not completely banned. In the late 1980s, several laws were passed which partially banned asbestos use. However, many of the regulations were overturned, and it is still legal for products to contain up to 1% of asbestos. Also, asbestos is fully legal in some other countries from which the U.S. imports goods. As it pertains to real estate, no law requires that asbestos be removed in existing buildings or houses prior to a sale.

What Types of Construction Products May Contain Asbestos?

How Do I Know if the Home I am Purchasing Has Asbestos?

Unfortunately, you may not know whether a home you are purchasing contains asbestos products, unless you test every suspicious product and material in the home for asbestos. When you buy a home in California, the seller will likely give you written disclosures which require that the seller disclose any asbestos that the seller is aware of at the property.  However, if the seller is unaware, this is not helpful. You will also probably pay a contractor to do a general inspection of the property, but since most general inspections are visual only and non-invasive, your home inspector will likely not determine whether there is asbestos in the home.

The best way to determine whether asbestos is to have a certified asbestos inspection or remediation company test for it. Various testing methods may be employed depending on what type of material you are testing.  A complete asbestos evaluation would require destructive testing of every product that may contain asbestos, which might require drilling, scraping, and other destruction that the seller would likely not agree to prior to a sale. Thus, it is often impossible to determine whether a home contains asbestos prior to purchasing the home.

How Might I Be Exposed to Asbestos in My Home?

Asbestos exposure can take place in many ways, including simple do-it-yourself projects in the home.  Tampering with old attic insulation, removing your own popcorn ceiling, cutting insulation on older pipes, removing vinyl floor tiles, sawing or sanding materials with asbestos, or even drilling into drywall that contains asbestos are examples of common ways homeowners become exposed to asbestos.

What Should I Do if My House Has Asbestos Products?

It is important to find out what asbestos materials are in your home. If asbestos is found in your home, do not tamper with it. Remember that when left undisturbed, asbestos is not likely to cause a health risk.  If the presence of an asbestos product in your home bothers you, several abatement methods may be considered:

1)     Removal.  Removal usually presents the greatest risks and should really be considered as the last alternative in abatement. If you are going to remove asbestos, the removal should be completed by an EPA-licensed asbestos abatement contractor. The removal process requires properly sealing off the entire work area, and the use of specialized equipment to create a negative pressure system. Protective suits and respirators are worn by the abatement professionals. This can be costly, but it is likely the only safe way to remove asbestos.

2)     Encapsulation. Encapsulation involves covering the asbestos material with a thick, paint-like materials, applied with a low pressure sprayer. A protective suit and respirator should be worn.

3)     Enclosure. Enclosure of asbestos involves putting an airtight barrier around the asbestos product. The key with this is sealing the asbestos product off with something air-tight, to prevent the release of fibers.

4)     Encasement. Encasement is a type of enclosure that involves applying a new covering over the asbestos material.

For More Information About Asbestos…

For more information about asbestos, you may visit the following websites:

This article contains general legal information and should not be construed to form an attorney-client relationship or contain specific legal advice. For legal advice specific to your circumstances, please contact a local attorney.