Asbestos has been used for insulation as far back in time as ancient Greece. Almost all older houses have had asbestos insulation on the heating pipes. A thin layer of asbestos can sometimes be found on old hot air ducts if there is a furnace. Old cast iron boilers had asbestos on the interior insulating walls as well. Believe it or not, asbestos used to be required to be installed in all new construction. That's why so many buildings have asbestos in them. It was considered a "miracle product" when it was widely used. (Yeah, it performs miracles with your health!) Many floors tiles and other products found in older homes have asbestos in them. Asbestos has great insulating and fireproofing qualities, the only problem is the public wasn't made aware of the health problems associated with it until it was too late. This is one area you have to be careful about. Asbestos really scares potential home buyers because of the health concerns with it.
Asbestos causes lung cancer when it comes loose from the pipes and the fibers get into the air. The asbestos fibers are like tiny daggers and when you breathe them in, they stick into your lungs and stay there. The fibers cling to dust and can be stirred up off the floor when someone walks in a room where the fibers are located. There are about five different diseases related to exposure to asbestos. There are six different types of asbestos minerals.
I did an inspection for an attorney who handled a lawsuit filed by the relatives of residents from a town in Australia. This attorney told me that every resident from that town was killed due to the Blue Asbestos mine that most of them worked at. Supposedly Blue Asbestos is the most dangerous type of asbestos to be exposed to. Just by getting one fiber in your lungs can be fatal!!! Just one fiber will not only create scar tissue in that section of the lung, but it will spread to cover the entire lung over time. This attorney told me that all of the workers in the mine were killed due to breathing the Blue Asbestos at work. Their families were all killed because the mine workers would bring home the fibers in their clothes which would spread in their homes. Also, the rest of the people in this town were killed due to the Blue Asbestos fibers being blown around town by the wind.
An asbestos lab technician told me that Steve McQueen died of an asbestos related cancer. Supposedly Steve McQueen worked in the French Merchant Marine when he was younger and that's where he was overly exposed to asbestos. I'm not telling you these stories to try to scare you, I'm just letting you know about some potential health hazards you have to watch out for.
Asbestos pipe insulation usually has a white color and appears to have layers of ribbed cardboard in the middle sections. You'll probably see an off-white canvas covering over it. Old hot air heating ducts may have a very thin, white layer of asbestos around them. The only way to know for sure if any insulation is asbestos is to have a laboratory take a sample. You can charge an additional fee for this service if you'd like. I don't get involved in handling any asbestos myself and I don't recommend you do either.
Don't take any chances identifying asbestos in the house. Just tell the client when you see an asbestos type of insulation, and tell them the EPA recommendations. The Environmental Protection Agency has offices in every State that will provide anyone with free information and brochures. They provide information about Asbestos, Radon Gas, Oil Leaks, Lead in paint and water, and many other environmental and health concerns. Get the local number for your State office and obtain their brochures for more information. There are also classes you can take that are accredited by the EPA for more information about these items.
The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that any asbestos insulation be professionally sealed or removed from the house by an EPA licensed asbestos contractor. This means, the homeowner, the plumber or any other repair person should not touch any asbestos in the house!! Often you'll see a residue from asbestos insulation on the heating pipes. Evidence of this is small white particles on sections of the pipes, usually around the joints. This indicates that a non-EPA licensed person removed the asbestos and it should immediately raise a red flag for you to notify the client.
Many times the homeowner will have a new boiler put in and some foolish contractor will just rip asbestos off the pipes not knowing what he's doing. Or worse, sometimes the contractor or the homeowner removes it intentionally just to get rid of it themselves. Big mistake on their part! When inspecting an older house you may not actually see the asbestos. If this were the case, you should assume that there was asbestos in the home at one time. It's better to be safe than sorry. Since asbestos was almost always used in older houses, it was probably unprofessionally removed and that's why you don't see it. I've found asbestos insulation on copper water supply pipes in houses that were built as late as 1960!!! When older houses have forced hot air heating systems, then there really is a problem if asbestos was used. I've found very thin layers of asbestos around forced hot air heating ducts and in the lining of furnaces. The furnace fan will circulate asbestos all over the house once it gets inside the air ducts. So not only will you have deadly fibers in the basement and behind the walls, you'll also have them in the livable rooms.
Tell your client to have a laboratory take an air sample to learn what the asbestos fiber content is in the house. There's no way for you to determine this during an inspection. Don't take any chances with this stuff. Asbestos lawsuits are big bucks. I've only heard of one home inspector getting sued for asbestos. But I have heard of many contractors getting sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars for improperly removing asbestos.
Don't let the clients be fooled by any Realtors or other third parties telling them not to worry about the asbestos in the house. A common line that I hear Realtors and other third parties say to my clients on inspections is: "This asbestos is just fine, the Environmental Protection Agency says all you have to do is to wrap it in tape or plastic." That really bothers me when I hear that. What gives that third party the right to sugarcoat a decision that concerns someone else's health? You can bet that if that Realtor or third party was the person buying that house, they'd insist that the asbestos be removed. They'd also make sure it was removed by a licensed EPA contractor prior to closing! Yet it's OK for them to let someone else buy the house and leave the asbestos there.
I'll never forget the time that I started inspecting a house for a client before they had arrived at the site. I was in the lower level of the house with a dishonest Realtor to the transaction who was getting a commission on the sale. I mentioned that there was asbestos on the heating pipes and that some of it appeared to have been removed unprofessionally or had fallen off sections of the pipes. This Realtor got worried and asked me what type of health concern there was with breathing in asbestos fibers. I told her, "The fibers are like tiny daggers that stick in your lungs and create scar tissue. " She just turned and practically ran for the stairway and said, "I'm getting out of this basement now, I'll be waiting upstairs."
When my client arrived, I told him about the asbestos. He then went upstairs and told this Realtor that he wanted it removed from the pipes prior to closing on the house. I could not believe it when I went back upstairs and the Realtor said to me, "Why are you getting the client so scared about the asbestos?" I felt like screaming at her! Just 15 minutes earlier this Realtor ran out of the basement because I told her about the asbestos on the pipes. Now suddenly she was worried because I might create problems with her deal by informing my client about the same health concern that she was so concerned about herself. I guess it's different when it's somebody else's lungs and not her own. Some people have an amazing ability to rationalize their actions. I'll talk more about this at the end of the book.
I tell my clients that they're better off having an EPA licensed contractor remove the asbestos from the house, as opposed to just having it wrapped professionally. The reason for this is that if the asbestos is left in the house and is only sealed, then when there's a pipe leak underneath the asbestos insulation, the covering will have to be removed. The asbestos will have to be exposed so that the pipe leak can be repaired. Once it's exposed, you have the problem all over again of fibers getting into the air of the house. Also, if the client has the asbestos removed from the house, as opposed to having it wrapped, then they don't have to worry about it bothering potential buyers when they sell the house.
When an Environmental Protection Agency licensed contractor removes asbestos, they seal the entire area where it's located. They work with completely sealed suits over their bodies. They then set up a vacuum to remove all of the dust from the area. When the asbestos is totally removed from the house, they take an air sample. The air sample is done to make sure the workers haven't left any fibers lying around that can be stirred up and breathed in later. Generally, any asbestos behind the walls is left alone. If there's no access to the asbestos and it can't be disturbed, there isn't that much of a health concern. Just let the EPA licensed asbestos contractor tell your client what to do. You only give recommendations from an appraiser's viewpoint.