Assessing Potential Asbestos Hazards

Until the 1970s, it was common to wrap pipes with insulation made of asbestos. Asbestos was also used as wall insulation, as a siding material, and as an ingredient of many floor tiles and sheet goods. Even the “cottage cheese” texture on some ceilings may contain asbestos. Asbestos is an ideal material for many purposes because it is virtually impossible to burn. However, we now know that tiny particles of asbestos, when inhaled, can cause cancer of the lung or stomach. In many cases, symptoms are not apparent until 10 years or more after exposure. It’s well worth your efforts to have your home inspected for asbestos and to require an inspection if buying a home.

When the dangers of asbestos first became apparent, companies and individuals spent thousands of dollars removing it. This proved a difficult process because even microscopic particles must be captured during removal. Today, many experts say that covering, rather than removing, is the best solution. They’ve concluded that the very act of removing asbestos poses far more dangers than does undisturbed existing asbestos. Asbestos in good condition poses little danger, and asbestos that is adequately covered poses virtually no danger.

If your heat or water pipes are wrapped in old, cloth-covered insulation, it may be asbestos. If the material is brown, it’s probably a type of cardboard. However, if it is light gray or white, chances are it is asbestos. Soak a small section thoroughly with water and, wearing long sleeves and gloves and a dust mask, cut out a small section. Place it in a plastic bag and take it to your building department to see if it is asbestos.

Loose-fill insulation in an older attic also may contain asbestos. Wet and collect a sample and have it tested. Older asphalt or vinyl tiles and sheet goods may contain asbestos. Wear a respirator when removing these products. Local codes may require that asbestos be removed rather than encapsulated. You will have to hire an abatement company certified to do such work. Otherwise, you may be able to deal with the problem yourself; consult with your building department first. Perhaps you will be allowed to wrap asbestos pipe insulation with plastic and tape approved for such use. You also may be permitted to seal over asbestos insulation with plastic, and then cover the plastic with plywood.

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