Asbestos in older homes

Learn to recognize it and take proper safeguards

Top part of old house.
Many homes built before 1970 contain asbestos products.

If you happen live in a house that was built before the 1970s, there’s a good chance that asbestos was used in its construction. Even if your house was built since then, asbestos may still be found in some areas. In fact, only houses built within the last 10 years or so should be free of insulating asbestos, although it could very easily have been used in other forms.

This knowledge may instill fear in many homeowners, but, a little knowledge can reduce anxiety. Once the background and use of asbestos is known, the homeowner should be able to recognize potentially dangerous situations. After being informed about the ways in which asbestos must be safely handled, the homeowner can be assured that proper safeguards are being taken. With widely prevalent asbestos use in construction during the early part of the 1900’s, and in hundreds of products since then, it’s been the subject of much research. Much has been learned about it and the threats it can pose. Inhalation of asbestos is the only known cause of pleural mesothelioma, a rare cancer that affects the lining of the lungs.


Why was it used?

From the time that asbestos was discovered in the first century, its properties amazed people. It had the ability to protect from heat, flames, noise and condensation. In fact, early Greeks used it for both lamp wicks and clothing.

By the 1800s, asbestos was considered to be even more of a “miracle mineral” and was used in conjunction with the growth in industry. Using this readily available and inexpensive material in all manners of household construction offered many benefits, with no visible drawbacks, at the time. Asbestos could be used to fill spaces, cover items, mix with liquids or combine with paints. It could keep flames lit, heat in, cold out, sound clear, damp areas dry and cement strong. In fact, by the 1970s it seemed that mankind was still discovering uses for asbestos. It was put into paints, adhesives, clay, crayons, protective wear, metal ware and, of course, appliances. With its adaptability, it seemed to meet countless needs in different ways.

Where was asbestos used in older homes?

Asbestos examples

Asbestos fibers
Asbestos fibers.

White textured area
Textured plaster.

Rafters in attic.
Attic containing vermiculite insulation.

The main areas of the house where asbestos was used were in basements ,attics or roofs. As an acoustical or heat insulator, asbestos was often placed in, around or between steel beams, water and sewer pipes, ducts, high temperature gaskets, stovepipe rings, electrical wiring, vinyl and linoleum sheet flooring, floor backing, shingles, panels, partitions and acoustic tiles. It was also placed in the areas of heaters, boilers, furnaces, incinerators, artificial fireplaces and barbecues. These are the areas a homeowner is most likely to visually see the soft, fluffy asbestos that’s white or gray. (Asbestos that was mixed into cement, siding, wall coverings, plaster, stucco, spackling, putty, caulking, vermiculite, and joint compounds is obviously not visible.)

Is vermiculite insulation a problem?

Prior to its close in 1990, much of the world’s supply of vermiculite came from a mine near Libby, Montana. This mine had a natural deposit of asbestos which resulted in the vermiculite being contaminated with asbestos. Attic insulation produced using vermiculite ore, particularly ore that originated from the Libby mine, may contain asbestos fibers. Today, vermiculite is mined at three U.S. facilities and in other countries which have low levels of contamination in the finished material.

What should I do if I have vermiculite attic insulation?

DO NOT DISTURB IT. Any disturbance has the potential to release asbestos fibers into the air. Limiting the number of trips you make to your attic and shortening the length of those trips can help limit your potential exposure. EPA and ATSDR strongly recommend that:

  • Vermiculite insulation be left undisturbed in your attic. Due to the uncertainties with existing testing techniques, it is best to assume that the material may contain asbestos.
  • You should not store boxes or other items in your attic if retrieving the material will disturb the insulation.
  • Children should not be allowed to play in an attic with open areas of vermiculite insulation.
  • If you plan to remodel or conduct renovations that would disturb the vermiculite, hire professionals trained and certified to handle asbestos to safely remove the material.
  • You should never attempt to remove the insulation yourself. Hire professionals trained and certified to safely remove the material.

When is asbestos dangerous?

Due to its composition, asbestos becomes dangerous when pieces of it break away and float in household air currents. This is because even a tiny amount is comprised of tens of thousands of microscopic fibers. Being so light, they adhere to clothing, household items or hair; in fact, almost every surface is conducive to harboring asbestos fibers. Once breathed in, however, asbestos cannot leave the lungs. The fibers remained trapped and can exist for up to 50 years. As the body attempts to attack and expel them, disease-producing conditions are created. Some are a response to foreign particles--such as asbestosis--while others are actually carcinogenic (lung cancer and mesothelioma). Since such disease tracking was begun around 2000, the cases of fatalities associated with asbestos have dramatically increased, due to the incubatory period of asbestos and its crest in the 1940s and 1950s.

How is harmful asbestos identified?

When a homeowner notices pieces of asbestos wafting in the air, it’s time for immediate action. This situation may not even occur until renovations or remodeling take place, when inadvertent sawing, scraping or drilling dislodges the base of asbestos or allows it to crumble. These asbestos particles should not be dusted, vacuumed or swept by the homeowner. Anyone in the area should remove outer clothing and leave it at the location, then depart the area, shutting all entryways. They should then contact professionals trained and licensed in the handling of asbestos, who may suggest contacting local or state agencies to test the matter. Once it’s determined to be a hazardous condition, the contractor will decide whether to repair or cover the asbestos, or remove it completely. (Removing asbestos may also involve replacing pipes or wires, requiring additional trained professionals.)

Are there other dangers?

Homeowners may face the same situation if and when older appliances are opened for repair. Asbestos may also seep out of even fairly new protective aprons, gloves, barbecue mitts, stove burner mats or iron rests. Obviously, such items must be discarded as soon as possible, preferably encased in bags, if doing so will not dislodge additional fibers.

Where can I get more information

 

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