A home is supposed to be a safe haven, but if your home is built with hazardous and toxic materials, it can pose a threat to your health. Does your home contain asbestos? Very likely. Asbestos is one of the materials on the Red List, a list of “worst in class” materials, chemicals, and elements that green builders try to avoid.
While it is not possible to completely eliminate everything on the Red List from home construction at this time, the list, which is updated annually by the International Living Future Institute, provides a target for improvement. Asbestos is a red list item that consumer safety advocates have fought against for decades. Despite the well-documented risks, asbestos is not only found in older homes; Many building materials on the market today contain asbestos.
Asbestos is an inexpensive mineral naturally composed of durable, flexible, lightweight microscopic fibers that is resistant to fire, electrical and chemical damage. It is also sound absorbent and has high tensile strength. Because of these properties, asbestos has been used in literally thousands of products. They were especially popular from the 1930s to the 1970s, when they were used in products from toasters to cosmetics, and auto parts to building materials.
Unfortunately, when those fine fibers of asbestos are disturbed, they can easily be inhaled and lodged in the lungs. It has been proven that asbestos causes three types of diseases: lung cancer; Mesothelioma, an incurable cancer of the lining of the respiratory tract. A lung disease called asbestosis. There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos.
You can assume that any home built before 1980 contains some asbestos. Asbestos was so common in the past that it can be in almost any part of the home. Common places to find asbestos include high-temperature areas in older homes, such as boiler ducts; insulation; Vinyl Floor Tiles Reputable Ceiling Tiles Popcorn Ceilings. Roofing materials, cement, siding, and paint can also contain asbestos.
Because asbestos fibers are microscopic, it is impossible to tell if a material contains asbestos by just looking. Taking samples of a substance for testing can release fibers into the air. If you suspect a material in good condition contains asbestos (based on its age), it is best to assume that it contains asbestos.
If you suspect damaged materials, such as loosening insulation or crumbling drywall, contain asbestos, or if you’re planning a remodeling project that could affect the suspicious materials, consider hiring a trained and certified asbestos professional to inspect your home.
Although it doesn’t make sense, the safest thing to do with asbestos-containing building materials is to leave it in place. Asbestos is harmless while it is not disturbed. But any damage to the material, from sawing, sanding, drilling, or even abrasive cleaning can release microfibers and create a hazard. To avoid damaging asbestos-containing products, you can cover or close the product. Covering the product may include wrapping insulated pipes or laying a new layer of flooring over vinyl tiles. Some types of insulation can be closed with a surface treatment that holds the fibers in place.
Asbestos-containing products that have already been damaged, or that will be damaged through planned reconstruction (eg, removal of a wall containing asbestos insulation) should be removed. Asbestos sealing and removal should only be performed by certified professionals – this is not an appropriate DIY project.
Asbestos must be disposed of as hazardous waste.
More than 40 countries around the world have banned asbestos. While there have been attempts to ban it in the United States, to date, there is no complete ban on asbestos. Today, products can contain up to 1% asbestos. One percent appears to be a small amount, but there is no safe limit for asbestos exposure. Although the use of asbestos is decreasing, many products still contain it. Most commonly found in building products, asbestos is also found in some parts of the automobile and vermiculite (used in soil saturation and insulation). Warning labels are generally not required, which makes it very difficult to avoid buying products that contain asbestos.
Probably the most important sources of asbestos in new construction are insulation, roofing, and vinyl tiles. Sustainable types of insulation generally do not include asbestos, and the same is true for more sustainable roofing materials. Using linoleum or other eco-friendly flooring materials instead of vinyl tiles will not only avoid asbestos, but also other red list materials (such as vinyl).
For larger rebuilding projects or new construction, you should talk to your contractor to make it clear that you want to avoid products that contain asbestos. If a contractor seems unfamiliar with products that contain asbestos or is ignoring your concerns, find a new contractor who is better versed in green building.
The future of asbestos
In December 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency released a final risk assessment of chrysotile asbestos that concluded that there are unreasonable risks throughout the product life cycle. Their next step is to suggest and finalize actions to guard against unreasonable risks. In the future, consumers may have less asbestos to worry about.