What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring group of minerals that can only be identified under a microscope. There are several types of these flexible, fire-resistant fibers. In the past, asbestos has been added to a variety of products to strengthen them and to provide heat insulation and fire resistance. In most products, asbestos is combined with a binding material so that it is not readily released into the air.
However, if asbestos should become airborne and is inhaled, it can become a serious health threat. Asbestos fibers break down into very fine fibers that are easily breathed into the lungs. These fibers tend to accumulate in the lungs and can remain in the lungs for a long period of time. This increases the risk of cancer and other related lung diseases which often do not appear until many years later.
Where is Asbestos Found?
Asbestos can be found in more than 3,000 products in use today. Most of these materials are used in heat and acoustic insulation, fire proofing, roofing, and flooring. Some of the more common products that may contain asbestos include:
- pipe and duct insulation
- artificial ashes and embers sold for use in gas-fired fireplaces
- resilient floor tiles and sheet flooring
- building insulation
- wall and ceiling panels
- carpet underlays
- patching and spackling compounds (use was banned in 1977)
- brake pads and linings
- pot holders and ironing board pads
- hair dryers
- electrical wires
- patching and joint compounds, textured paints
- roofing and siding shingles (asbestos cement)
- toasters and other appliances
- soundproofing and decorative materials sprayed on walls and ceilings
- older stove top pads
- asbestos paper, millboard, or cement sheets that are used on walls and floors around wood-burning stoves
- oil and coal furnaces and door gaskets that may have asbestos insulation
Houses built between 1930 and 1950 may have asbestos as insulation.
What Should Be Done About Asbestos in the Home?
Asbestos is rarely used alone, and it is generally safe when combined with other materials with strong bonding agents. As long as the material remains bonded so that fibers are not released, it poses no health risk. Deterioration of asbestos-containing materials increases the likelihood residents of the home will be exposed to the health hazard.
If you think that asbestos may be in your home, don’t panic! Usually, the best thing is to leave asbestos material that is in good condition alone. Asbestos material that is in good condition will not release asbestos fibers. The danger comes when the fibers are broken down into a dust of microscopic-size fibers, suspended in the air, and inhaled into the lungs.
If asbestos material is more than slightly damaged, or if you are going to make changes in your home that might disturb it, repair or removal by a professional is needed. Before you have your home remodeled, find out whether asbestos materials are present.
Do You Have an Asbestos Problem?
The risk of disease caused by asbestos depends upon the intensity and duration of exposure. Exposure to low levels of asbestos for short periods of time poses minimal risk. Asbestos fibers can penetrate body tissues and remain in the lungs and the tissue lining of the lungs and abdominal cavity. The fibers that remain in the body are thought to be responsible for asbestos-related diseases (asbestosis, lung cancer, or mesothelioma). The illness caused by asbestos may not be observed for 20 or more years.
If you suspect that you might have a problem, have a sample of the suspect material analyzed by a laboratory. Asbestos professionals can conduct home inspections, take samples of suspected material, assess its condition, and advise about what corrections are needed and who is qualified to make these corrections. A professional hired to assess the need for corrective action should not be connected with an asbestos-correction firm. It is better to use two different firms so there is no conflict of interest.
It is recommended that you ask asbestos professionals to document their completion of federal or state-approved training. Each person performing work in your home should provide proof of training and licensing in asbestos work. State and local health departments of EPA regional offices should have listings of licensed professionals in your area.
Asbestos Do’s and Don’ts
- DO keep activities to a minimum in any areas having damaged material containing asbestos.
- DO take every precaution to avoid damaging asbestos material.
- DO have removal and repairs done by individuals trained and qualified in handling asbestos.
- DON’T dust, sweep, or vacuum debris that may contain asbestos.
- DON’T saw, sand, scrape, or drill holes in asbestos material.
- DON’T track material through the house that could contain asbestos.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency U.S. EPA, Region 6
- California Air Resources Board
- California Environmental Protection Agency
Adapted by Janie L. Harris, M.Ed., CRS, former Extension Housing and Environment Specialist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Texas A&M System. 1999.
Last updated: July 3, 2015