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Planning a home remodeling project? Plan for asbestos risk

Asbestos is a fiber that was widely used in insulation, flooring, roof tiles and other building materials especially before 1978. The Environmental Protection Agency says there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. Exposure can cause serious illnesses, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis.

If you have a home that was built before 1978, there is a good chance you have asbestos-containing materials in or on your home. However, asbestos can sometimes be found in more recent construction.

What is the risk? Have I already been exposed?

If your home has been maintained in good shape, there is a chance you have not been exposed to asbestos yet. This is because asbestos fibers generally have to become airborne in order to cause trouble. If the materials in your home are in good condition and haven't been disturbed, they may not have released any airborne asbestos.

Remodeling and construction projects can disturb building materials that contain asbestos, causing them to release the deadly fibers into the air. People who breathe in these fibers are then at risk for mesothelioma and other lung diseases.

Activities that can release asbestos into the air include:

  • Removal and replacement
  • Cutting
  • Tearing
  • Sanding
  • Stripping
  • Sawing
  • Drilling
  • Scraping

Asbestos can also be released when a building component containing the fiber becomes worn, frayed, or damaged. In that case, dusting, sweeping or vacuuming the debris could release asbestos into the air.

Therefore, before you begin any home remodel or addition, you should identify any asbestos-containing materials and have them professionally removed.

How can I tell if something is made of asbestos?

You generally can't tell just by looking. Professionals who are trained and accredited in asbestos remediation know what to look for. You should not take samples yourself, as this can disturb the asbestos and cause it to become airborne. According to the EPA, sampling, if performed incorrectly, can be more dangerous than leaving the material alone.

If your home was built before 1978, assume it contains asbestos. Hire a trained, accredited asbestos professional to assess the risk and handle remediation or abatement. Ideally, hire one firm to do the assessment and another to do the remediation or abatement in order to avoid a conflict of interest.

Do's and don'ts before a remodeling project

  • Do leave any undamaged building materials alone and take every precaution to avoid damaging these materials.
  • If a possibly asbestos-containing material is damaged, do keep activities to a minimum in that area until it is remediated. Don't dust, sweep or vacuum the debris.
  • Do have all removal and repair, even minor repair, performed by a trained, accredited asbestos abatement professional.
  • Don't saw, scrape, sand or drill holes in material that may contain asbestos.
  • Don't use abrasive pads or brushes on asbestos flooring. Never use a power stripper on any flooring that could contain asbestos.
  • Don't attempt to sand, level or remove asbestos flooring. New flooring could be installed over the asbestos-containing flooring, or the flooring could be removed by an accredited asbestos abatement professional.
  • During your project, do try to avoid the construction zone. If you cannot avoid it, clean up with a wet mop.

Because of the added expense, it's tempting to think we don't need to worry about asbestos these days, but the substance is widespread. Every remodeling or construction project should begin with the assumption that asbestos may be present. Trained, accredited asbestos professionals should be involved from the beginning. Your health is worth more than any added cost.

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