Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral composed of small fibers. Its strength and fire resistance have made it an attractive addition to many building materials and it's especially common in products manufactured before 1980. If your home was built before that time, there's a good chance you can find asbestos lurking somewhere.
The fibers of asbestos are prone to dispersing into the air and are so fine they are easily inhaled. Once in the lungs, they stay there, causing scarring and sometimes cancer. There is no known way to remove the asbestos fibers from your lungs or to undo the damage it can cause. That's why it's so important to avoid exposure in the first place.
It's All in the Way the Material Crumbles
Not all asbestos-containing materials are imminently hazardous. The danger results when degradation of the surrounding material causes asbestos fibers to be released and become airborne. Asbestos-containing materials—those that contain one percent or more of the mineral—are classified in two categories and the category your material fits will determine your disposal procedures:
Friable materials are those that can be easily crumbled—often by no more than hand pressure when dry. Common friable asbestos materials are pipe wrappings, acoustical ceiling tile, sprayed-on popcorn ceilings and boiler insulation. These are the most difficult and complex to remove safely.
Non-friable materials are those where the asbestos fibers are more tightly integrated into the material and are unlikely to produce airborne asbestos fibers unless the material is subject to cutting, sanding, drilling or abrasion or is obviously deteriorating and crumbly. Visibly compromised non-friable materials are considered friable and must be disposed of accordingly.
Dangerous When Disturbed
Much of the danger asbestos poses results from trying to remove it. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of public health and environment of the various states all recommend not disturbing asbestos-bearing materials if they can otherwise be sealed, covered over, or encapsulated. Although residential owners are legally allowed to abate asbestos themselves, most governmental sites strongly urge employing a certified asbestos removal specialist if removal is necessary. Many states require professional abatement if the material to be removed is friable and exceeds 160 square feet of affected area. Professional or otherwise, removers of asbestos material are required to follow established disposal procedures.
Safe, Legal Disposal
Non-friable asbestos-containing materials such as roofing materials and floor tiles that are largely intact and not subject to becoming friable from landfill compaction can, in some states, be disposed of as construction debris. This varies from state to state so it's best to consult local regulations.
Friable asbestos-containing materials and non-friable materials likely to become friable under landfill conditions are the most hazardous and consequently subject to the most stringent disposal regulations. The general protocol for disposal of regulated asbestos-containing materials requires thorough wetting of the debris to suppress dust and then double-bagging the material in agency-approved heavy plastic bags, each bag sealed with duct tape. Your local pollution control or environmental protection agency will have specific warnings you must affix to each outer bag. The agency will also have a list of certified landfill sites that accept your class of hazardous asbestos waste.
The effects of exposure to asbestos are insidious in that they may become apparent only many years—even decades.. Then, the effects can be devastating. That's why it's essential that you treat asbestos and its disposal as cautiously and conscientiously as you would any other hazardous material—for your own well being, for your community and your environment.