Indoor Air Quality, Part 2: Asbestos Danger

Jim Mallery

Part 2 of a four-part series, Green Renovation: Indoor Air Quality

The first part of this series examined indoor air quality concerns caused by demolition. This article considers asbestos contamination, probably the most serious remodeling concern in an old house.

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that was widely used in houses until the 1970s; hence, its danger lurks in old house remodeling projects. It was used as a strengthener and for heat and fire protection.

Asbestos: Deadly Serious Old House Remodeling Peril

Inhaling asbestos fibers can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma and a lung disease called asbestosis. If you and others in your house are 80 years old, then you may not need to worry about the dangers: These sinister diseases may not show up for 20 years or more. But if you are younger, you'd better be aware.

The dangers of asbestos increase with the amount of fibers inhaled. We all are exposed to minute amounts in our daily lives--it is naturally occurring, after all. However, asbestos-containing materials in the home that get disturbed can emit dangerous amounts.

According to the EPA, it can be found around the home in various places:

  • Roofing and siding shingles may be made of asbestos cement.
  • Houses built between 1930 and 1950 may have asbestos as insulation.
  • Some vermiculite insulation may contain asbestos fibers, particularly if the vermiculite was mined in Libby, Montana. That mine also included a deposit of asbestos, leading to contaminated vermiculite. The mine closed in 1990, but until then, it was a major supplier of vermiculate in the world.
  • Textured paint and patching compounds used on wall and ceiling joints, especially "popcorn" ceilings from before 1977 may include asbestos.
  • Old stove-top pads may have asbestos compounds.
  • Artificial embers used in gas-fired fireplaces may contain asbestos. Also, walls and floors around woodburning stoves may be protected with asbestos board or paper.
  • Asbestos is found in some vinyl flooring, both sheet and tile. It also was used in floor adhesives.
  • Insulation on hot water and steam pipes in old houses may contain asbestos
  • Oil and coal furnaces and door gaskets may have asbestos insulation.

Asbestos Precautions: Do Not Disturb, Get Professional Help

If you suspect asbestos products may be in the path of your remodel, have the questionable material tested. And if it contains asbestos, get professional guidance on how to deal with it. The EPA recommends professional help even with minor repairs. If the problem requires major clean-up, the agency says unequivocally that you should have it handled professionally.

  • Do not cut, sand or otherwise disturb material that contains asbestos.
  • Do not sweep or vacuum debris that comes from an asbestos source.

Many aspects of dealing with an old house are annoying. In the case of asbestos, it is downright dangerous. Back in the day it was commonly used. Today, its dangers are known--and not to be ignored.

Dust is always a problem with home remodels. These are some basic steps that will minimize the problem. Next, you will read about some special concerns regarding indoor air pollution when you finish up your remodeling.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

About the Author

Jim Mallery, a semi-retired journalist and onetime registered contractor, has extensive experience remodeling, repairing, and rebuilding homes.

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