Most homeowners have heard of asbestos and know that it’s not great to have in a home. But what exactly is it and what does I t mean if it’s in your house? Whether you’re worried your home may have asbestos, you’ve been exposed to it, or you’re curious to learn more about it, this ultimate guide for homeowners will help answer your questions.
What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos consists of a group of six different naturally occurring fibrous minerals — chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, anthophyllite, tremolite, and actinolite, with chrysotile and amosite being the most common. Asbestos is known for its strength and heat resistance, which is why it became a favorite product in so many housing materials. It made great insulation because of its heat resistance, and due to its strength was added to asphalt, concrete, joint compounds and adhesives, and various vinyl materials.
It wasn’t until the late 1970s when research revealed that asbestos could pose safety and health risks. By 1980, asbestos was eliminated from most housing materials, and today it is classified as a carcinogen.
Where Is Asbestos Most Commonly Found?
Asbestos has been described as a “lurker,” as it often remains hidden. It was frequently used in homes and buildings constructed in the 1940s through 1970s. Of the homes built during this time, asbestos was used in an extensive list of housing materials, including:
basement boilers and pipes
HVAC duct insulation
vinyl tile floors
blown-in attic insulation
Is Asbestos a Hazard?
The presence of asbestos is not dangerous. If it is left alone — and not released into the air — asbestos-containing materials will not likely pose any health risks. Even if you have ceiling or floor tiles with asbestos, they won’t release fibers unless they are disturbed or damaged.
Asbestos becomes dangerous when it is “friable,” meaning it can easily crumble and release fibers into the air. For example, if your attic is older or in poor condition and you need to work in or repair it, it could potentially start releasing asbestos fibers that are dangerous to inhale.
What Are the Health Risks of Asbestos?
Frequent or long-term exposure to asbestos — whether occupationally, environmentally, or from secondhand exposure — can lead to severe health complications, often in the lungs. When asbestos-containing materials and fibers are in the air, you may inhale or swallow them, and your body has trouble eliminating them. These fibers can become trapped in the lung lining, the abdominal cavity lining, or the heart.
When asbestos fibers remain trapped in your body, they can cause inflammation and damage that can potentially lead to cancer, namely asbestosis, lung cancer, or mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that forms on the protective tissues covering the lungs and abdomen. On average, there are 3,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed every year in the U.S., and asbestos exposure causes a majority of them. Because it can take 20–50 years after asbestos exposure before any symptoms appear, the outlook for mesothelioma is very poor.
Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease resulting from inhaled asbestos fibers that scar the lung tissue. Like mesothelioma, symptoms often don’t appear until 10–40 years after exposure. Side effects include shortness of breath, loss of appetite, a dry cough, and pain or tightness in the chest.
Beyond mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer, asbestos exposure can lead to enlargement of the heart — due to an increased resistance of blood flow through the lungs — as well as laryngitis and a weakened immune system.
How Can I Tell if My Home Has Asbestos?
It’s hard to know for certain if your home contains asbestos, but if your home was built between the 1940s and 1970s, there’s a good chance some of your home’s materials contain asbestos. The first signs to look for include:
Uninsulated pipes with white or gray insulation remnants on the fittings.
An outline of flooring tiles in nine-inch square patterns, which was a common tile size containing asbestos.
However, these aren’t reliable enough signs. The best way to find out is to hire a professional to conduct asbestos testing. An asbestos building inspector will take small samples from your home and test them in a lab. Depending on how many samples you want to be checked, the inspection and test can cost between $100 and $750.
How Can I Get Rid of or Prevent Asbestos in My Home?
Surprisingly, the U.S. has yet to ban asbestos. Although less commonly used today, asbestos is still present in some home and automotive materials.
Avoid materials with asbestos. The best way to prevent asbestos is to avoid using materials that may potentially contain it.
Keep materials in good condition. Depending on when your home was built, it may already contain asbestos. The only way to prevent the fibers from releasing into the air is to keep the materials in good condition or to remove and replace them.
There are a few asbestos removal options available — depending on its location, condition, and whether or not it’s friable.
Hire a professional. Regardless of how much or where the asbestos is, hire a professional to make sure it is removed properly and to avoid releasing fibers into the air. A professional who is certified to conduct asbestos abatement work will have the right supplies and tools, including a HEPA vacuum and respirators, to keep your home safe.
Contact your local EPA office or health department. The department should be able to help you find a professional who has completed a government-approved asbestos safety course.
Test the air. You likely will not want to live in your home during this process, but make sure to have air samples tested once the removal is complete to ensure asbestos fibers were not released.
While asbestos isn’t always a health risk, it can potentially lead to serious medical problems, which is why many homeowners choose to have their homes tested. Have you conducted an asbestos test or removal in your home? What tips do you have for other homeowners? Comment below and share your experience.
Written by Melissa Darcey
Melissa Darcey is a freelance writer whose work has been featured in a number of technology, lifestyle, and business publications. Learn more