Is it Better to Remove Asbestos from Buildings or Leave it Intact?

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Hurricane Katrina caused damage to older homes and also disturbed asbestos present in them. Crews with special training were called in to deal with asbestos removal. Check out more photos of natural disasters.
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The 1980s were a decade of Reaganomics, new wave music, the centennial celebration of the Statue of Liberty, and breakdancing. This era was also marked by hysteria over asbestos. In the 1970s, it became clear that exposure to this fibrous material had the potential to cause cancer and other respiratory problems. Asbestos was found almost everywhere, including offices, schools, grocery stores, churches, and homes, which fueled the hysteria even further.

The rush to remove asbestos from buildings and residences began, and governments around the world banned and phased out the production of asbestos in manufacturing. Over the years, many buildings worldwide have had asbestos removed, but there is still a lot of it in place. Asbestos removal is hazardous and expensive, so is it better to remove it or leave it alone?

Living in a home with intact asbestos does not necessarily pose a health risk. Most people who suffer from asbestos-related health problems are exposed to the material over long periods of time, such as factory workers who make asbestos products [source: National Cancer Institute]. However, when these materials deteriorate, or become disturbed or damaged, asbestos fibers can be released into the air. These fibers can linger around your house for years, and once breathed in, especially the small, invisible variety, they can build up in your lungs.

Over time, these fibers can cause lung cancer and mesothelioma, which is a cancer of the lung and abdominal cavity lining. Asbestos is so dangerous that it has a medical condition named after it: Asbestosis, which is a permanent scarring of lung tissue. These scars can be fatal over time [source: EPA].

Asbestos can be found in various places in your home, occurring naturally as a form of magnesium silicate. It has been mined and used in manufacturing since the 19th century. Asbestos is separated into single fibers and added to products as a flame retardant or used as insulation. Paint, insulation, fiberboard, siding, soundproofing tiles, roof shingles, floor tile, and cement have all included asbestos at some point, and some of these products still remain in some homes. Even vermiculite, which are small white pellets found in potting soil, contains asbestos.

Asbestos is generally not found in homes built in the United States or Western Europe since the 1980s. It is more commonly found in older homes. If you live in an older home and prefer vintage style, how can you determine if asbestos is present in your dwelling?

In the late 1970s, the EPA and similar agencies in Europe began certifying professionals in identifying and removing asbestos. If you suspect asbestos in your house, it is recommended to contact a contractor to conduct a survey. In some states, the EPA is responsible for inspecting and removing asbestos. However, taking samples of materials containing asbestos is dangerous as it releases airborne filaments into the air. Therefore, it is not advisable to take samples yourself.

If the samples come back positive, and you are worried about living with a carcinogenic material, you may be wondering whether to remove it or leave it alone. The decision depends on several factors. Read the next page to find out more.

It is strongly recommended that homeowners hire a certified professional contractor to deal with asbestos in the house. Knowing that your house contains a cancer-causing material can be unsettling. The problem with diagnosing asbestos-related illnesses is that it takes a long time for symptoms to show up; it can take 20 to 30 years after exposure before cancer or other health problems appear. During that time, you may not know that you are breathing in asbestos fibers. Smokers who are exposed to asbestos fibers are at the greatest risk of developing lung cancer.

If you find out that there is asbestos in your home, the decision to remove it or leave it alone depends on whether the material is deteriorating or likely to be disturbed, perhaps through future remodeling. If so, then it is recommended to have the asbestos removed. Any disturbance, such as sanding paint or sawing fiberboard containing asbestos, will release fibers into the air in your home.

However, if the asbestos product is in good shape or used in an out-of-the-way area, such as insulation for heating or plumbing pipes in your crawlspace or attic, it may be better to leave it in place. If you choose to keep the asbestos product, the EPA suggests sealing or covering it. Sealing involves using special products designed to coat asbestos and bind the fibers together permanently. Covering asbestos includes wrapping it or closing it off from a room.

Whatever method you choose, it is strongly recommended that you hire a certified professional contractor to carry out removal or sealing and covering processes. These methods are even more dangerous than taking samples of asbestos.

Although government health and environmental agencies recommend homeowners to hire contractors to remove asbestos, it is possible to do it yourself. However, the high cost of asbestos removal may be a barrier for some individuals. If you choose to remove asbestos yourself, follow certain steps and precautions. Use hand tools instead of power tools to minimize dust, and vacuum excess materials instead of sweeping. Keep the asbestos material moist during removal to prevent fibers from becoming airborne. When possible, remove asbestos in large pieces. Wearing a certified mask is also important.

For more information on asbestos and related topics, visit the next page.

Get Help Removing Asbestos

Do not rely on this article as a guide for removing asbestos. It is important to consult how-to guides, books, and government agencies to learn more about the precautions and steps that must be taken when removing asbestos from your home.

Lots More Information

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  • How the EPA Works
  • How Your Lungs Work
  • How Cancer Works
  • How Vacuum Cleaners Work
  • 20 Facts About the Statue of Liberty

More Great Links

  • How to Properly Remove Asbestos Cement Board Siding
  • Asbestos Removal (tips and how-to)
  • U.S. EPA

Sources

  • “An introduction to indoor air quality: Asbestos.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. September 1990. http://www.epa.gov/iaq/asbestos.html
  • “Asbestos cement products: Asbestos – the dangers.” Gloucester, UK City Council. June 9, 2005. http://www.gloucester.gov.uk/Content.aspx?urn=2554
  • “Asbestos exposure: Questions and answers.” National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/asbestos
  • “Asbestos in your home.” U.S Environmental Protection Agency. http://www.epa.gov/asbestos/pubs/ashome.html
  • “Asbestos removal.” Workers Health Centre. April 17, 2005. http://www.workershealth.com.au/facts001.html

FAQ

1. What is asbestos and why is it dangerous?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was widely used in construction materials due to its heat-resistant properties. However, prolonged exposure to asbestos fibers can lead to serious respiratory illnesses such as lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis. Asbestos fibers are particularly dangerous when they are inhaled, as they can become lodged in the lungs and cause scarring and inflammation.

2. How can I tell if my building contains asbestos?

If your building was constructed before the 1980s, there is a good chance that it contains asbestos in some form. However, asbestos fibers are often invisible to the naked eye, so the only way to be sure is to have a professional asbestos inspection. This involves taking samples of suspected asbestos-containing materials and testing them in a laboratory.

3. Is it safe to leave asbestos in my building?

In general, it is safer to have asbestos removed from your building if it is in a damaged or deteriorating state. Asbestos fibers are most dangerous when they are released into the air, which can happen if asbestos-containing materials are disturbed or damaged. However, if the asbestos is in good condition and not likely to be disturbed, it may be safer to leave it in place and monitor it for any signs of damage or deterioration.

4. How is asbestos removed from a building?

Asbestos removal should always be carried out by a licensed and trained professional, as it can be a dangerous and complex process. The first step is to seal off the area where the asbestos is located and use specialized equipment to prevent the release of fibers into the air. The asbestos-containing materials are then carefully removed and disposed of in accordance with local regulations.

5. How can I protect myself from asbestos exposure?

If you suspect that your building contains asbestos, it is important to avoid disturbing any materials that may contain it. If you are planning any renovations or repairs, be sure to have a professional asbestos inspection first. If you do need to work with asbestos-containing materials, be sure to wear appropriate protective gear such as a respirator and disposable coveralls. It is also important to follow proper cleanup and disposal procedures to minimize the risk of exposure.

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