What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring type of mineral fiber that can only be identified through a special kind of microscope. There are several different forms of asbestos fibers which in the past were added to many various products to provide them with additional strength, fire resistance, and heat insulation.
How Does Asbestos Affect Human Health?
There has been a significant amount of research done on individuals who were exposed to asbestos in various environments, such as in shipyards or factories. We now know that breathing large amounts of asbestos fibers leads to an increased risk of developing lung cancer, specifically mesothelioma. This type of cancer affects the lining of the abdominal cavity and chest. Asbestos exposure can also lead to asbestosis, which causes the lungs to develop scar tissue.
These risks increase with the number of fibres that have been inhaled. Smoking tobacco also increases the risk of developing lung cancer related to asbestos exposure. In most cases, individuals who develop asbestosis have sustained prolonged exposure to high levels of asbestos fibres. The symptoms related to these diseases typically do not arise until 20 to 30 years after the initial asbestos exposure.
When exposed to a smaller amount of asbestos fibres in their daily lives, most people do not develop serious health problems. When asbestos fibres are disturbed, however, fibres can be released from the material which in turn can be inhaled into the lungs. These fibres can remain within the lungs for extended periods, which increases the risk of developing lung disease. Asbestos materials that are crumbly when handled, or have been scraped, sanded, or sawed are more likely to result in a health hazard.
Where Can Asbestos Hazards Be Found in a Home?
While it is no longer common practice to use asbestos materials when insulating or fireproofing a home, it can still be found in older homes. An experienced home inspector can help you to identify potential asbestos materials in your home. Some of the most commonly found areas that contain asbestos include:
- Siding & Roofing Shingles Made with Asbestos Cement
- Insulation in Houses Built Between 1930 – 1950
- Textured Paint & Some Patching Compounds (Banned in 1977.)
- Artificial Embers or Ashes for Gas-Fired Fireplaces
- Older Fire-Proofed Products (such as stove-top pads)
- Floors & Walls Surrounding Wood-Burning Stoves (protected with asbestos cement sheets, millboard, or paper.)
- Vinyl Floor Tiles & Backings on Vinyl Sheet Adhesives & Flooring
- Steam & Hot Water Pipes in Older Homes (often coated in asbestos materials or covered with asbestos tape or blanket.)
- Coal or Oil Furnaces, as well as Door Gaskets, may Contain Asbestos Insulation
What Can Be Done About Asbestos in the Home?
If you think there may be asbestos materials within your home, there’s no need to panic. In most cases, the best course of action is to leave any asbestos material that you find in good condition undisturbed. Generally, asbestos material that is in good condition does not release harmful asbestos fibers. Asbestos only becomes dangerous when the material is disturbed and the tiny fibers are released into the air and inhaled.
If you discover asbestos in your home, don’t touch it, but examine it thoroughly for signs of damage or wear, such as water damage, tears, or abrasions. Damaged asbestos materials pose a health risk, as they will release dangerous fibers. This is particularly dangerous if the materials are disturbed by handling, hitting, or rubbing, or if they are exposed to significant vibrations or airflow. The best course of action for slightly damaged material is to reduce access to the area and ensure that the material is not touched or disturbed in any way. Damaged asbestos materials should be carefully removed and discarded according to local health and environmental regulations. If you discover materials that are damaged more significantly, or if you are planning to make changes or renovations within your home, removal or repair by a professional is highly recommended.
The Bottom Line
Asbestos is a naturally occurring material that in the past was heavily used in a variety of home fireproofing and insulation products. When left undisturbed behind walls or flooring, it is generally considered safe. Before you have your home listed for sale or you embark on a renovation project, it is important first to establish whether there are asbestos materials within your home. If you are unsure about whether your home contains asbestos materials, or whether there is a health hazard involved, it is best to leave it to a professional.
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