What is asbestos

Asbestos is a mineral fiber which can be positively identified only with a special type of microscope. There are various types of asbestos fibers...

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What is asbestos

Asbestos is a mineral fiber which can be positively identified only with a special type of microscope. There are various types of asbestos fibers. In the past, asbestos was added to a variety of products to make them stronger y to provide insulation to heat and resistance to fire. Inspectors from The International Association of Home Inspectors can increase your knowledge with the information offered in this guide.

How can asbestos affect my health?

How can asbestos affect my healthFrom the studies of persons who have been exposed to asbestos in factories and shipyards, we know that breathing high levels of asbestos fibers can cause an increased risk of lung cancer in the form of mesothelioma, which is a cancer of the lining of the chest and the abdominal cavity and in the form of asbestosis, in which the lungs are scarred with fibrous tissue.

The risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma increases with the number of fibers breathed. The risk of lung cancer from inhalation of asbestos fibers is even greater if you smoke. People who have diseases caused by asbestos often don’t show symptoms till 20 or 30 years after their first exposure to asbestos.

The majority of persons exposed to small quantities of asbestos, as we all are in our daily life, don’t develop problems with their health. Never the less, if disturbed, material containing asbestos can free asbestos fibers that can be inhaled into the lungs. The fibers can remain there for a long time, increasing the risk of the disease. Asbestos material could crumble easily if handled or if it has been sawed, scraped or ground to a powder and is more likely to create a danger to your health.

Where is asbestos found and when could it be a problem?

The majority of products made today don’t contain asbestos. Those few products made that still contain asbestos are required to be marked as such. Never the less, until the 1970’s, many types of building products and insulation used in houses contained asbestos. Common products which could have contained asbestos in the past and conditions which could have freed fibers include:

  • Steam pipes, boilers, furnace pipes insulated with an asbestos blanket or asbestos paper tape. These materials can free asbestos fibers if they are damaged, repaired or removed improperly
  • Floor tiles (vinyl asbestos, asphalt and rubber), the back lining of the vinyl floor tiles and the adhesives used to install the floors. Sanding the tiles can release fibers, and scraping or grinding the back lining during removal can do the same
  • The adhesive layer, carton, and insulating paper around furnaces and wood stoves. Fixing or removing appliances can free asbestos fibers, and cutting, tearing, sanding, drilling or sawing the insulation can also do the same
  • Gaskets on furnace doors, wood and coal stoves. Leaking gaskets can free carbon fibers during their use
  • Soundproofing or decorative materials sprayed on the walls and the ceilings. Loose material, collapsed or damaged by water can free fibers and so can polishing, drilling or scraping the material
  • The patching and mixtures for walls and ceilings and texture paints. Sanding, scraping or drilling those surfaces can free asbestos fibers
  • Roofing, shingles and coatings with asbestos cement. Those products will not free asbestos fibers unless they are sawed or cut
  • The artificial ashes and embers sold for use in gas fireplaces and other old housing products such as fireproof gloves, stove platforms, ironing board covers and certain hair dryers
  • Brake pads, brake linings and seals

Places in the house where you will encounter asbestos hazards:

  • Some roofing and siding shingles are made with asbestos cement
  • Houses constructed between 1930 and 1950 can have asbestos insulation
  • Asbestos can be present in texture paint and in the spackling compound on the wall and in the ceiling joints
  • The artificial ashes and embers for sale for use in gas fireplaces can contain asbestos
  • Older products such as stove platforms can contain some asbestos compounds
  • Walls and floors around wood stoves can be protected with paper, cardboard or coatings of asbestos cement
  • Asbestos is found in some floor tiles and on the back of the vinyl tile in the adhesive coating
  • Hot water pipes and heating pipes and ducts in older homes can be covered with an asbestos material or covered with a coating of asbestos tape and cement
  • Oil and coal furnaces and their door seals can have asbestos insulation

What should be done about asbestos in the house?

What should be done about asbestos in the house? If you believe you have asbestos in your house, don’t panic. Usually the best thing to do is to leave the material alone if it is in good condition. Generally asbestos material that is in good condition will not release asbestos fibers. There is no danger at least that the asbestos is broken and the fibers are free to then be inhaled into the lungs. Review the material regularly if you suspect the material contains asbestos. Don’t touch it, but look for signs of wear and tear such as scratches, abrasions or water damage. The damaged material can free asbestos fibers. This is especially true if you regularly hit, scrape or bump into it or if it is exposed to extreme vibration or a flow of air. At times the best way to treat slightly damaged material is to limit access to the area and not touch it or disturb it. Remove gloves, stove platforms, and ironing table covers that contain asbestos. Consult with local health and environmental agencies to discover the appropriate procedures for handling and disposing. If the asbestos material is more than a little damaged or if you are going to make changes in your house that require disturbing it, the repairs and removal by a professional is necessary. Before remodeling your house find out if any asbestos material is present.

How to identify materials that contain asbestos?

You can’t say if a material contains asbestos or not just by looking at it, unless the material is labeled. If you have doubts, treat the material as if it contained asbestos, or have it submitted for testing or analyzed by a licensed professional. A professional should take samples for analysis, since a professional knows what to look for and because there could be an increased risk to your health if fibers are freed. In fact if not done correctly, taking the sample can be more dangerous than just leaving the material alone. Taking samples your self is not recommended. Never the less, if you choose to take the sample yourself, be careful not to free any asbestos fibers into the air or onto yourself. The material that is in good condition and that won’t be disturbed (by remodeling, for example), should be left alone. Only the material that is damaged or will be disturbed should be sampled. Whichever person that takes the samples should have the most information possible about the handling of asbestos before taking samples and at least should observe the following procedures:

  • Make sure no one else is in the room when you begin to take the sample
  • Use disposable gloves and wash your hands after taking the sample
  • Turn off all the heating and air conditioning systems to minimize the spread of loosened asbestos fibers
  • Don’t disturb the material more than is necessary to take a small sample
  • Put a plastic cover on the floor under the area that will be subjected to sampling
  • Moisten the material using a fine mist containing some drops of detergent before taking the sample. The mist of water/detergent will reduce the freeing of the asbestos fibers
  • Carefully cut a piece the entire depth of the material using a small knife or another sharp object. Put the small piece in a clean container ( a 35 millimeter film container, glass or plastic jar, or a high quality plastic bag with a zipper)
  • Tightly seal the container after the sample is inside
  • Carefully remove the plastic cap. Use a moist towel to remove any material on the outside of the container or around the area which was sampled. Remove the asbestos materials according to state and local procedures
  • Label the container with an identification number and state clearly when and where you took the sample
  • Patch the area that was sampled with a piece (as small as possible) of adhesive tape to prevent the liberation of asbestos fibers
  • Send the sample to an asbestos analysis laboratory sponsored by the NVLAP (National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program). Your state or local department of health also has some ability to assist.

How to handle an asbestos problem

If the asbestos material is in good condition and is not disturbed, don’t do anything! If there is a problem there are two solutions, repair and removal. Normally the repair involves sealing or covering the asbestos material. Sealing (the act of encapsulation) involves treating the material with a sealant that joins the fibers of the asbestos together or covers the material so the fibers can’t be freed. Pipe, stove and furnace insulation can be repaired this way at times. This should only be done by an experienced asbestos removal professional. Covering (encapsulation) involves putting something over or around the asbestos containing material to prevent the liberation of the fibers. Exposed insulated pipes can be covered with a protective packaging. With any type of repair the asbestos remains in place. The repair is normally less expensive than removal but can make the removal more difficult and more expensive in the future, if removal is found to be necessary. The repairs can be small or large. Large repairs have to be done only by a professional qualified in the methods of safe asbestos removal. Minor repairs also should be performed by professionals since there is always a risk of exposure to asbestos fibers whenever asbestos is disturbed.


Making small repairs yourself is not recommended, since the improper management of asbestos materials can create a risk where there was none. If you, in any way choose to make small repairs, you should have the most information possible on asbestos management before you do it. Contact your local or state department of health or regional office of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) for information about training programs for asbestos in your area. Your local area schools may also have information about asbestos professionals and asbestos training programs for school buildings. Although you have completed a training program, you haven’t treated anything more than some small repairs. Before doing minor repairs, carefully examine the area around the damage to make sure it is stable. As a general rule if a damaged area is larger than the size of your hand it is not considered a minor repair.

Before making minor repairs you should be sure to follow all the previously described precautions before taking samples of asbestos materials. Always moisten the asbestos materials using a fine mist of water containing some drops of detergent. Commercial products designed to fill holes and seal the damaged areas are available. Small areas of material such as pipe insulation can be covered by a wrapping of a special cloth, such as a fabric of re-wettable fiberglass on its exterior. These products are available in shops (which are in the telephone book under “safety equipment and clothing”) that specialize in asbestos materials and safety articles.

Normally removal is the method most costly and unless it is required by state or local regulations, should be the last option considered in the majority of situations. This is because removal has a bigger risk of freeing the fibers. Never the less, removal could be required to remodel or to make major changes in your house, which will disturb the asbestos material. Further, removal can be necessary if the asbestos material is extensively damaged and cannot be repaired. Removal is complete and should be designed only by a contractor with special training. Improper removal could increase the risk to you and your family’s health.

Asbestos professionals, who are they and what can they do?

Asbestos professionals are qualified in handling asbestos materials. The type of professional depends on the type of product and on what can be done to correct the problem. You can employ an asbestos general contractor or in some cases a professional specifically qualified in managing materials that contain asbestos. Asbestos professionals can make home inspections and take samples of suspect material, evaluating its condition and recommending corrections that are necessary as well as being licensed to make such corrections. Other times material in good condition doesn’t need to be sampled unless it’s probable that it will be disturbed. Repair professionals or abatement contractors repair and remove asbestos materials.

Some businesses offer combinations of testing, evaluation, and correction. A professional contracted to evaluate the necessity for a corrective action should not be related to a business for the abatement of asbestos. It’s better to utilize different businesses so there is no conflict of interest. Services vary from one area of the country to another.

The federal government offers courses of training for asbestos professionals around the country. Some state and local governments also offer courses of training and certification. Ask asbestos professionals to document their completion of state and federal approved training. Every person wanting to do the work in your house should provide proof of training and licensing to work with asbestos such as the completion of training approved by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). The state and local departments of health and the regional offices of the EPA should have lists of the professionals licensed in your area.

If you have a problem that requires the services of asbestos professionals, review their credentials with care. Hire those professionals that are qualified, experienced. recognized and accredited, especially if the accreditation is required by local or state law. Before hiring a professional ask about their references from previous clients. Find out if they were satisfied. Ask if the professional has managed similar situations. Get some price estimates from various professionals since the cost of those services can vary.

Although private homes aren’t normally covered by the asbestos regulations that apply to schools and public buildings, professionals should in every way use the procedures described in the training approved by the state and federal government. Property owners should be alert to the chance of misleading claims by asbestos assessors and contractors.

There have been reports of businesses that claim incorrectly that asbestos materials in homes have to be removed.
In other cases businesses have encouraged unnecessary removal or have performed them incorrectly. Unnecessary removal is a waste of money. Improper removal can actually cause a risk of health to you and your family. To protect against this, know what services are available and what procedures and precautions are necessary to do the work correctly.

In addition to asbestos general contractors, you can choose a contractor qualified for roofing, siding, or plumbing to handle the asbestos if it is necessary to remove or replace a roof, floor covering, wall covering, or asbestos cement covered pipes that are a part of the plumbing system. Usually roofing and flooring contractors are exempt from local and state licensing requirements because they do no other work for the correction of asbestos.

Brake pads, brake liners and joints should be repaired and replaced only by licensed professionals utilizing special protective equipment. Many of those products are now available without asbestos.

If you hire an inspector from InterNACHI who is qualified for the inspection of asbestos:

  • Make sure that the inspection includes a complete visual exam and the careful examination and analysis of the samples in the laboratory. If asbestos is present the inspector should provide a written evaluation, describing the location and the extent of the damage and giving recommendations for the correction or prevention.
  • Make sure that the inspection business makes frequent visits if it is contracted to ensure that the contractor follows the appropriate procedures and requirements. The inspector can recommend and design revisions after the correction to assure that the area has been cleaned correctly.

If you hire a contractor for corrective action:

  • Check with your local air pollution control board, the local agency responsible for the safety of workers, and the “Better Business Bureau (Departamento de Mejor Negocio)”. Ask if the business has any safety violations. Ask if here are any legal actions are recorded against them.
  • Insist that the contractor use the appropriate equipment to do the work. The workers should have to use respirators, gloves, and other appropriate protective clothing.
  • Before the work begins, get a written contract which specifies the plan of work, cleaning, and the applicable national, state, and local rules which the contractor has to follow (such as the requirements for the notification of asbestos removal procedures. Contact the local and state department of health, the regional office of the EPA, the regional office of occupational safety and the health department to find out what the regulations are.
  • Make sure the contractor avoids spreading or tracking asbestos dust to other parts of the house. They should seal the work area from the rest of the house using a cover of plastic and tape and should turnoff the heating and air conditioning systems. For some repairs such as the removal of insulation from pipes, plastic bags can be adequate. They should also be sealed with tape and disposed of correctly when the work is complete.
  • Ensure that the work area is marked as a hazardous area. Don’t permit family members or pets into the area till the work is completed.
  • Insist that the contractor apply an agent with a hand sprayer using a fine mist to moisten the asbestos material before removal. The moistened fibers don’t float in the air as easily as dry fibers and they will be easier to clean.
  • Make sure the contractor doesn’t break the removed material into smaller pieces. This could free asbestos fibers into the air. Pipe insulation is normally installed in preformed blocks and should be removed in complete pieces.
  • On completion, make sure the contractor cleans the area well with wet mops, wet wipes, sponges and/or HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) vacuum cleaner(s). Never use a regular vacuum cleaner. Wetting helps to reduce the chance of spreading asbestos fibers in the air. All the asbestos materials, disposable equipment and clothing used in the work should be placed in sealed bags, tested for leaks and labeled. The work area should be visually free of dust and waste. Testing the air (to ensure there is no increase in asbestos fibers in the air) could be necessary to ensure that the contractors work was performed correctly. This should be done by someone who is not employed by or related to the contractor.


Don’t shake, sweep, or vacuum any debris that might contain asbestos. Such actions break up asbestos into small fibers and can free them to the air. Clean the dust with a wet mop or with a special HEPA vacuum cleaner utilized by qualified asbestos removal contractors.

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