June 1, 2017

The "Things You Should Know" blog series covers home health, safety, and comfort information that homeowners and renters should know, but might not. Email your topic suggestions to qkorzeniecki@bpi.org.

Photo: Forsyth County, NC

Asbestos isn’t only in your grandmother’s walls – it could also be in your home or workplace.

When asbestos was first discovered in the early 1900s, it was recognized for its insulating as well as its heat resistant qualities, which is why it was used to make fire-proof fabrics and insulate homes. Little did we know back then, but it is also highly toxic. Asbestos has been confirmed as a known human carcinogen, causing a lung disease called asbestosis, lung cancer, and a rare cancer called mesothelioma. Today, asbestos use is banned in 50 countries, but it isn’t yet banned in the United States.

Where could asbestos be in my home?

There are six different types of asbestos: chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophyllite, and actinolite. Approximately 90% of asbestos used in the world is chrysotile, but all types are considered toxic to humans.

Because of its fiber strength and its heat resistant qualities, asbestos was used in many different building materials, such as roofing shingles, paper products, ceiling and floor tiles, and certain cement products.

Specifically, asbestos might be found in:

  • Vinyl floor tiles and the backing on vinyl sheet flooring and adhesives
  • Any attic and wall insulation containing vermiculite
  • Roofing and siding shingles
  • Textured paint and patching compounds used on walls and ceilings
  • Hot water and steam pipes coated with asbestos insulating material
  • Walls and floors around woodstoves protected with asbestos paper, cement sheets, or millboard
  • Oil and coal furnaces and door gaskets with asbestos insulation

While there are federal requirements surrounding asbestos, some public and non-profit private schools and workplaces may contain traces of asbestos. Additionally, some asbestos-containing products are banned, but others are not.

Banned asbestos products include: corrugated paper, rollboard, specialty paper, flooring felt, and commercial paper.

The manufacturing, processing, and distribution of the following asbestos products are not banned, meaning they could still be used in homes and commercial buildings today:

  • Cement corrugated sheet
  • Pipeline wrap
  • Cement flat sheet
  • Roofing felt
  • Vinyl floor tile
  • Cement shingle
  • Millboard
  • Roof coatings

How can asbestos affect me and my family?

Asbestos fibers are even smaller than a human hair – about .02 the diameter of a single hair. Breathing in these tiny asbestos fibers can cause a buildup of scar-like tissue in the lungs that could result in disease, disability, and death. A World Health Organization (WHO) study (and many other studies) found that asbestos fiber types, including chrysotile, the most commonly used form of asbestos, cause mesothelioma in humans.

Exposure levels and risk vary from state to state, and even home to home, but you can check your state’s history with asbestos to get an idea of where you stand.

How can I get test for and get rid of asbestos?

While the idea of asbestos in your home or workplace can be a scary concept, Joyce Jackson Wood, former asbestos attorney, reiterates that it’s the exposure level that makes asbestos dangerous: “Asbestos [a mineral] is in the air we breathe. Everyone who has lived in the environment has some asbestos in their lungs. Lung scarring, known as asbestosis, is only found in people with long industrial exposures, not incidental exposures. People really should not be panicked over having a little joint compound in their houses or removing a few vinyl tiles. It’s the dose that makes the poison.” 

However, there is no "safe" level of asbestos exposure for any type of asbestos fiber. If you think you might have asbestos products in your home and are concerned about how it might affect your and your family’s health, the best practice would be to call a licensed professional to appraise the situation, carry out any testing needed, and abate any issue potentially found. While home testing kits are available, once asbestos is damaged or broken, the risk of it becoming a serious health hazard become greater. Contact your local state asbestos contacts for a list of asbestos abatement contractors in your area. On a national scale, HomeAdvisor estimates that the average asbestos remediation costs between $1,000 and $2,500. That’s a small price to pay to protect the long-term health of your family.

Thanks to Emily Walsh, Community Outreach Director at the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, a leading authority on mesothelioma, whose mission is to continually provide relevant, timely, and factual information about asbestos exposure and its causal links to mesothelioma cancer, for contributing her expertise to this post.

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