How to safely deal with asbestos in your home
Use extreme caution around this known carcinogen
Ancient cultures taught us about the virtues of asbestos: primarily that it cannot be destroyed by fire, making it the perfect fireproofing material.
The name of the mineral itself comes from the Greek for indestructible; Romans made tablecloths out of it that could be cleaned by flames; the Egyptians wrapped their dead in it to ensure the ashes wouldn’t be lost during cremation.
What we failed to learn from them, however, is the dangers of inhaling asbestos fibres. They knew about this, too. As far back as the 1st century BC, the Greek author Strabo documented its effects as “sickness of the lungs.”
Sadly, that sickness – in the form of asbestosis, mesothelioma or cancers and fatal lung diseases – persists today. “People are dying – old insulators, or tradesmen,” says Insulator instructor Fred Savoie (Insulator '92, left), because of exposure to asbestos in building materials used until the substance was banned in the 1980s.
Owners of homes built before this period can stay safe by being aware of the risks. Before starting a renovation or demolition, learn a lesson, if not from Strabo, from a NAIT instructor with years of industry experience. Here, Savoie explains how to identify and deal with the age-old problem of asbestos.
Possible household sources
“Everything had asbestos,” says Savoie – ovens, toasters, aprons, oven mitts, “crayons even, for the tensile strength.”
In addition to its fireproofing qualities, asbestos was revered for being chemically non-reactive, never rotting, and not conducting electricity well. That’s why it can be found in
- Plaster siding
- Tape around furnace ductwork
- Linoleum tiles
- Ceiling tiles and spackle
- Drywall mud and spackle
- Spray-on insulation
- Pour-in-place vermiculite insulation
- A variety of other materials identified by the United States Environmental Protection Agency
“They thought asbestos was the best insulating product,” says Savoie. They had good reason. Dangers aside, “It still is today.”
What to do if you encounter asbestos in your home
Asbestos found “bonded” to any of the materials listed above isn’t necessarily dangerous, Savoie explains. You still need to take care, however. If it can be broken or crumbled, fibres become airborne and breathable. Should this happen, Savoie recommends the following:
- Mist the area with a spray bottle. “Water keeps the dust down to nothing.” Do not use a vacuum to remove the material, even if your machine has a Hepa filter.
- Cover the material or, in the case of vermiculite insulation leaking from a wall, seal the hole.
- Do not expose yourself to the material without the protection of a P100 particulate filter respirator and Tyvek coveralls.
- Call a professional to determine if the material contains asbestos. A visual check isn’t enough, says Savoie. “There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to have it tested.”
- Have it removed by a reputable, ticketed professional. Asbestos can only be hauled by certified drivers and must be disposed of in special landfills.
In any case, the safest approach to asbestos in the home is simply to avoid it. If materials suspected of containing it are intact, and removing them isn’t necessary to a renovation, leave them that way. Encase whenever possible, Savoie recommends. Cover old materials with new flooring, drywall, siding, and so on.
“If it’s not hurting anybody, let sleeping dogs lie.”