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Protection Against Asbestos Exposure: 5 FAQs for Homeowners and Renovators

If you're the owner of an older home, or you work on managing, demolishing, or renovating old buildings, you naturally want to protect yourself and your family against the risk of potentially harmful asbestos exposure.

Here are five questions to ask as you do this.

Why should homeowners and contractors be concerned about possible asbestos exposure?

Federal researchers recently called attention to a "third wave" of deaths from diseases such as mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos fibers. This third wave includes many people who were exposed when asbestos was stirred up during rehab or demolition projects.

The first wave of deaths involved asbestos-miners and those directly involved in manufacturing asbestos-containing products; the second wave was people in jobs such as pipefitting and shipyard work.

Many elderly people in the first two waves who were exposed decades ago are still developing symptoms of and dying from asbestos-related diseases. Because of the long latency period between asbestos exposure and the development of symptoms, this is not surprising.

Recent research by the Centers for Disease Control has shown, however, that there are also many people under 55 who are dying of asbestos-related diseases. Many of these people are those who worked in building renovation or demolition.

Aren't there federal regulations against asbestos?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has had regulations since 1971 on the amount of asbestos on worksites. Similarly, the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) has guidelines on asbestos use, including renovation and demolition requirements.

But these regulations do not guarantee or provide sufficient protection against harmful asbestos exposure.

Hasn't the U.S. stopped producing asbestos?

Though asbesots mining production stopped in the U.S. in 2002, imports have continued. As a result, asbestos is still frequently used in common products such as batteries, automotive brakes, soap, and fertilizer. In 2015, the amount of asbestos used in the U.S. was 350 million metric tons.

What can homeowners and building managers do to mitigate the risk of asbestos exposure and help people stay safe?

Excluding ongoing asbestos imports, there is still way too much dangerous asbestos present in old buildings.

It isn't necessarily obvious just by looking at materials whether they contain asbestos. Sometimes materials are labeled, which of course makes things easier. But in many cases, you may not be sure whether particular materials in your home contain asbestos.

The EPA recommends leaving materials alone if you aren't sure what they contain. If you want to remodel your home or have damaged materials such as decaying insulation, you may want to have your home tested by a trained professional who has been accredited to evaluate asbestos issues.

What other tips does the EPA have for homeowners?

On its website, the EPA offers a detailed list of Do's and Don'ts for homeowners who are responding to potential asbestos issues.

Some of the points we have already touched upon, such as not disturbing materials that contain (or may contain) asbestos unless you have to. The EPA also advises such specific steps as:

  • Avoid sanding, scraping, sawing, or drilling materials that could contain asbestos;
  • Enlist trained asbestos contractors to handle substantial repair and removal projects;
  • Monitor materials that contain asbestos, checking for signs of wear and tear over time; and
  • Limit access to areas with asbestos-containing materials that are damaged.

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