Asbestos is the familiar term for a group of minerals composed of tightly-packed fibers and prized for their strength and fire resistance. Until the late 1970s, asbestos was a frequent component in both exterior and interior building materials. The presence of asbestos in your home does not automatically represent a health hazard—asbestos is only dangerous if its needle-like microscopic fibers become airborne and breathable—but the revelation that your home contains asbestos-containing materials is cause for concern and can affect your home's value when you sell.
What Kind of Material?
Asbestos-bearing materials are divided into two general categories—friable and non-friable. Friable materials are those that can be crushed or crumbled with hand pressure. Examples of friable materials include pipe and furnace insulation and wrappings, some acoustical ceiling tiles, textured spray-on ceiling applications, and vermiculite insulation. Vermiculite poses special problems of its own and needs to be discussed separately.
Materials considered non-friable are those where the asbestos fibers in their composition are held in a stable matrix and unlikely to be released under normal circumstances. Examples of non-friable asbestos-bearing materials include vinyl-asbestos floor tiles, asbestos siding and roofing.
The Value of Doing Nothing
State and federal agencies charged with the oversight of asbestos removal and disposal practices uniformly recommend leaving asbestos-containing materials undisturbed, sealing them off or encapsulating them when possible. The potential cost of asbestos abatement certainly makes encapsulation an attractive alternative. It's not always possible, however, to simply leave asbestos undisturbed. If the asbestos material is friable, or becoming friable through deterioration, or if the asbestos-containing material will be disturbed as a consequence of remodeling or demolition, asbestos removal is required by law.
Do It Yourself...or Not?
Removal of asbestos-bearing material by the homeowner is allowed and is not subject to regulation except for those regarding the proper disposal of the debris and the stipulation that any person hired to assist in the removal must be fully trained and licensed to do so. However, a homeowner undertaking DIY abatement of asbestos risks endangerment of himself or herself and contamination of the home unless adequate measures are taken to isolate the affected area, suitable protective gear is worn, and proper procedures are carefully followed. Specific abatement protocol will vary with the nature and extent of the asbestos contamination, but most asbestos-bearing material removal follows some basic principles.
How to Remove Asbestos Safely
- Clear the affected area of any extraneous items. Otherwise, those will require cleaning before your abatement is complete.
- Thoroughly seal the area with heavy plastic. Turn off the furnace, air conditioner, or any fans that would circulate air through the house. Cover all registers and air returns.
- Before attempting to remove any asbestos-containing material, spray it liberally with water to suppress any dust you might create.
- Work carefully and deliberately. Keep the material as intact as you can.
- Place the material in heavy plastic bags as you remove it. Many locales require that the abated waste be double-bagged in 6-mil plastic bags, each bag sealed with duct tape and the outer bag labeled with a specific warning. Follow the procedures for your area.
- Once the asbestos material has been removed and bagged, carefully wipe down the containment area with dampened rags. Do not sweep or vacuum the area, as this creates dust.
- Place the rags you used for cleaning, your disposable coveralls, and the filters from your HEPA respirator into the regulation disposal bags. Carefully roll up the containment plastic and bag that as well.
- Immediately wash the clothes you wore under the protective coveralls and take a shower.
- Dispose of the bags of waste at a facility that accepts asbestos debris.
Bringing in the Experts
The cost of professional removal of asbestos is widely variable and of course will depend in part on the nature and extent of the contamination, but also on the individual contractor. It's well worthwhile to get estimates from several—comparing not only the price but the procedures they will follow. As the homeowner, you are considered legally responsible for the asbestos waste and thus obliged to assure that disposal will be in accordance with regulations. Your contract with an asbestos abatement contractor should include in writing a commitment that all removed material will be handled properly and legally.
You may or may not choose to have an asbestos test performed beforehand. An expert test can cost as little as $200 or as much as $950, with the average at about $500. You can also perform a test yourself, using an asbestos testing kit available at most home improvement stores. Or, if you are pretty sure you know asbestos when you see it, you can save the testing money and use it toward the abatement cost. When the job is done, and especially if you have used a contractor, you may want to bring in an independent licensed asbestos inspector to assure the asbestos is fully abated. An inspector will cost $200 to $400.
Nationally, the average cost for asbestos removal is about $2000. The cost of removal in your case will be determined by the particulars of your problem. Removal and disposal of a section of pipe wrapping could cost less than $1000. A home with asbestos materials throughout could cost from $20,000 to $30,000 for complete removal.
Vermiculite is a mineral composed of mica-like flakes. When heated, these flakes expand like popcorn to form lightweight, fire-resistant nuggets. It was used for decades, up until the 1980s, as insulation that was poured loosely between wall and ceiling joists. Vermiculite itself is not asbestos-bearing but most of the vermiculite sold in the United States came from a mine in Libby, Montana, where asbestos was also mined and the vermiculite contaminated. This presents a particular problem because vermiculite is extremely dusty and friable, and because it is typically found in attics where both access and containment can be a challenge. If vermiculite has been used in your attic and if you will never need to access that attic and never need to add more insulation, it's safe to leave it there. You should understand, though, that its presence will preclude any future weatherization or modification of your attic space, that you will likely be required to disclose it when you sell your house, and that it may affect the appeal and the value of your home.
The difficulty of vermiculite removal makes the procedure one of the most expensive—typical costs range from $7000 to $12,000. If other insulation has been added on top of the vermiculite, that is also considered contaminated and must be removed and handled as hazardous waste, too. Fortunately, some assistance is possible. The asbestos-contaminated vermiculite was manufactured and sold under the brand name Zonolite. As a result of litigation by homeowners, the Zonolite Attic Insulation Trust was set up. You must file a claim for reimbursement, but if your claim is accepted, you may be eligible for a reimbursement of as much as 55 percent of the cost of removal and replacement of your attic insulation. Information about the reimbursement program can be found at zonoliteatticinsulation.com.
It's worth educating yourself about the likely sources of asbestos contamination in a home and what to look for. If you're buying a home, the possible presence of asbestos-containing materials may represent a cause for concern or perhaps a point of negotiation. If you're selling a home with asbestos, the tables may be turned. Properly addressed, the presence of asbestos should not be a health hazard, but abated or not, it may cost you.
A former agency art director then freelance designer, illustrator and copywriter, Bill has written for the medical, technical, industrial, food and agricultural industries. With over 35 years experience in the area of home improvement. He has produced books on multiple subjects for Home Depot, The Handyman Club of America, Hometime, Black & Decker and Popular Mechanics.