Asbestos was widely used in building construction materials up to 1970, and can be found in many locations in older homes, though some of the obvious locations are very site-specific.
An estimated 840,000 American homes, buildings and schools built after World War II and before 1980 contain asbestos, and thousands die each year from asbestos exposure – a rate that is likely to persist until the legacy of asbestos plays out. Since the symptoms of asbestos exposure and consequent disease can take up to 50 years to manifest, that legacy extends to about 2030. Fortunately, about 90 percent of the asbestos in building components is chrysotile asbestos, which tends to be less problematic than with forms of asbestos like crocidolite and amosite (amphibole asbestos).
Asbestos in homes is commonly found in:
- forced-air heating ductwork
- insulation blankets or tape around steam pipes, boilers, and furnace ducts
- resilient floor tiles
- vinyl sheet flooring backing
- adhesives used to install floor tiles
- insulation made of cement sheet, millboard, and paper used around furnaces and wood-burning stoves
- door gaskets in furnaces, wood stoves, and coal stoves
- sprayed soundproofing or decorative material on walls and ceilings
- patching and joint compounds for walls and ceilings
- cement roofing, shingles, and siding
For the homeowner, the safest method of asbestos removal is to hire a professional asbestos abatement firm or individual. In some states asbestos removal by such professionals (as opposed to merely a building contractor) is mandated.
Homeowners choosing to do the job themselves are not prohibited, at the federal level, from proceeding. States have various laws, but most allow homeowners to remove asbestos from their premises, and state laws on this can be discovered by contacting the state or regional environmental quality or health department.
The problem is, the various laws surrounding asbestos removal (from notification through disposal) are so complex, or so difficult for a layman to interpret, that it is easy to violate the law and not even know it. Even state environmental and health employees may not know the full status of laws. Homeowners determined to go it on their own may find themselves on the wrong side of the law and facing even greater costs, in the form of fines or remediation mandates, than would have been incurred by hiring a professional asbestos abatement contractor.
When in doubt, it is always a good idea to pay for an asbestos analysis before proceeding; some products (like plaster) may or may not contain asbestos, and only testing will confirm the presence of asbestos. Testing kits available for approximately $30 can analyze a sample and have results back within two weeks.
Homeowners can also make their own test kits, using well-sealed glass jars or tubes, and send acquired samples to a National Institute of Standards and Technology-certified (NIST) laboratory in the area. The list is available online.
Testing and remediation, or removal, require adhering to a few simple safety rules. These are:
- Wear gloves and a face mask, or wrap a damp, non porous cloth around nose and mouth
- Shut down the furnace or air conditioning, as well as any whole-house ventilation systems and fans
- Keep all but those engaged in sampling/removal out of the area, and seal it off
- Wet the surface in question thoroughly, and keep it wet
- Remove a small sample/remove the material in question
- Do not scrape, chip, break or sand the material, or unnecessarily disturb it
- Place material in sealed, glass container/dispose of it in tightly sealed, heavy-duty plastic bags
- Dispose of any material in a designated hazardous waste landfill (contact a regional environmental quality agency to determine the location)