Asbestos is a collective term for a class of minerals—chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, anthophyllite, tremolite, and actinolite—that form long, thin, strong fibers. Because of their strength and fire resistance, these minerals were mined throughout the 20th century and their fibers incorporated into many products, especially building materials such as floor tile, roofing, insulation, acoustic materials, wallboard and fireproofing. Asbestos is no longer mined and its use has been prohibited in many products since the late 1970s, but its widespread application means that unless your house was built after 1980, asbestos-bearing products were likely used somewhere.
Dangerous and Ubiquitous
State and federal regulations about the presence and handling of asbestos treat it as a hazardous material. Exposure to airborne asbestos fibers can result in serious, even deadly consequences. But consider the generations who came before regulation and lived with asbestos-products ubiquitous in their daily lives. Only a relatively low number exhibited any perceivable effect of asbestos exposure.
The risk of disease from asbestos exposure depends on the extent and duration of exposure as well as the lung health of the person exposed. For those who are affected by asbestos exposure, the afflictions can include scarring of the lungs and/or thickening of the membrane around the lungs—both conditions severely inhibiting breathing—and also cancer of the lungs or membrane.
Is Removal Necessary?
The key to safe and appropriate handling of asbestos-bearing material is to isolate it, disturb it as little as possible, wear protective gear, and to take measures to suppress the release of asbestos dust and fibers. The safest way of dealing with asbestos-containing material you may encounter in your home is to leave it in place.
Many of the products containing asbestos hold it in a stable matrix that presents no danger unless the material is disrupted. More fragile, crumbly material can sometimes be safely sealed or encapsulated. Leaving the material in place and rendering it inert avoids the necessity of dealing with proper disposal.
Know Your Limits
Some asbestos removal should be left to the professionals—the scope and complexity of the task is beyond the equipment and capability of homeowners. Some textured "popcorn" ceiling treatments, particularly those applied before the 1970s, contain asbestos and are deteriorating. Removing that ceiling texture without allowing asbestos fibers to circulate through the house requires careful sealing off of the affected room from the rest of the house, including any air vents or returns and systematic wetting of the ceiling texture to prevent dust.
Vermiculite was for many years a popular form of insulation. A natural mineral composed of mica-like flakes, when exposed to high temperature, vermiculite expands to as much as 30 times its original size. Fire-resistant and lightweight, it makes excellent insulation and was commonly poured in loosely between wall and attic joists.
While not asbestos-bearing in itself, over 70 percent of the vermiculite produced in the United States was mined in Libby, Montana, where it was contaminated by an adjacent asbestos deposit. If your attic is insulated with vermiculite and you can avoid using the attic for storage or disturbing the vermiculite in any way, it's safe to leave it in place. If you need to use your attic for storage or other purposes, removing the vermiculite is necessary. To do that safely, you need a professional asbestos removal contractor.
Do-It-Yourself Asbestos Removal
State and federal guidelines allow homeowners to remove asbestos from their place of residence. While the removal procedures are unregulated, homeowners are still required to comply with local asbestos disposal requirements.
Before you begin, visit your state's pollution control or environmental management site to identify the asbestos disposal sites nearest you and appropriate for the kind of debris you will generate. Ascertain whether you need to obtain approved disposal bags and any other requirements the disposal facility might have.
- Clear the area you plan to abate of all extraneous objects. Cover all parts of the work area with plastic sheeting to protect it.
- Turn off heating or air conditioning and be sure the registers and return air vents are sealed.
- Wear disposable coveralls, disposable gloves, goggles and a respirator mask equipped with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter for your safety and to contain the contamination.
- Spray the working area with water using a spray bottle or garden sprayer prior to and during asbestos removal to prevent dust and airborne fibers.
- Work cautiously to minimize damage to the asbestos-containing material as you remove it. This keeps released asbestos fibers to a minimum and also may give you more disposal options.
- Place removed material in approved plastic bags as directed by your state agency or disposal facility. In many states, you are required to seal the bag with duct tape, then place that in another bag and seal that one as well. Label as required.
- Roll up the plastic covering the work area carefully and dispose of it, along with your coveralls, gloves and the filter cartridges from your respirator in approved plastic bags as you did with the debris.
- Wet wipe any areas of visible dust in your work area. Never sweep or use a vacuum to clean up asbestos dust.
- Wash all clothing worn under the coveralls and shower thoroughly.
As you can tell from the stringent regulations and extreme precautions that accompany it, asbestos removal and disposal is serious business. Undertake it only when you are properly equipped and fully informed to keep yourself and your family safe.
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.