By Melissa Graham | Updated Apr 7, 2022 2:30 PM
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A: When it comes to asbestos in the home, any iota of concern regarding its presence should be treated seriously, no matter what. While asbestos in your home is a scary prospect, though, asbestos is only harmful if the particles become airborne, like if the insulation is damaged or disturbed. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral and can pose serious health concerns when the particles are inhaled, such as mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer. Unfortunately, there’s no known cure for diseases like mesothelioma, and inhaling only a few particles can put you at risk.
Since your home was built in an era where asbestos insulation was used without pause, it’s normal to wonder if you’re being exposed to asbestos fibers in the air. However, insulation can look different depending on what type was used, and some kinds are more likely to contain asbestos than others. The most notorious asbestos-containing insulation is vermiculite, also known by the brand name Zonolite.
If you suspect asbestos insulation, it’s advised to call a professional who can bring an asbestos test kit to detect the presence (or, hopefully, absence) of the potentially toxic mineral. While there are vital identifiers for each type of asbestos insulation, only an asbestos removal pro will know how to test and how to identify asbestos.
While asbestos is a harmful substance, this wasn’t always common knowledge—and it was considered an excellent material for insulation. There are actually six different types of asbestos, and they all had specific insulation applications. Asbestos fibers have a cottony consistency, and the space between the fibers slows down the transfer of heat. This has the added benefit of making asbestos incredibly resistant to heat. Asbestos particles could easily be pulled apart and mixed with other materials, so it was a natural choice to include in insulation materials.
Loose-fill insulation is most commonly found in attics or hollow spaces. Loose-fill insulation is often a fluffy texture in a grayish-white color and can also be poured inside walls and other building structures. If your house was constructed before 1990, the loose-fill insulation could contain asbestos; loose-fill insulation installed after that time likely does not contain asbestos.
When it was developed, spray-on asbestos insulation reduced the time workers needed to fill the desired spaces. Still, since it contained up to 85 percent of asbestos, it posed a hazard to laborers exposed to it. This type of asbestos insulation can be seen in bigger warehouses or commercial buildings. It can also be seen on ceilings, where it looks like a thick coating of cement. Since spray-on asbestos can be damaged easily, it can send a cloud of toxic fibers into the air, putting those who occupy the space at risk. This type of insulation must be thoroughly encapsulated to be deemed safe for people to be around. Since 1990, regulations have been put into place to ensure spray-on insulation contains no more than 1 percent asbestos. The products must be contained with a bituminous or resinous binder while it’s applied.
Another type of insulation that contains asbestos is block insulation, also referred to as asbestos wall insulation. This type of insulation looks like slabs or bricks of material and is often glued to walls in buildings. These blocks or boards are made of pure asbestos, which is why they are so dangerous. If the blocks are chipped or sawed off at any time, they become an exposure hazard.
You may also want to have any asbestos insulation wrappings checked out. This type of asbestos insulation was likely placed around pipes, ducts, or other plumbing and HVAC components. Your home is especially at risk for this type of asbestos insulation if it was built before 1980. During that time, installers used asbestos pipe insulation, which used a kind of cardboard made out of asbestos paper that can crumble and release asbestos dust into the air.
From 1919 to 1990, a mine in Libby, Montana, was the source of almost 70 percent of vermiculite insulation used across the United States. Vermiculite isn’t inherently dangerous, but because the mine contained an asbestos deposit, the vermiculite from that mine was contaminated with the mineral. This type of insulation was sold under the brand name Zonolite, so if you have it in your home, it would be wise to call a professional for an asbestos test or inspection. Even if you don’t feel any adverse effects, it’s safe to assume you have asbestos if vermiculite insulation was used in your home—the first symptoms of asbestos exposure are symptoms of related diseases like mesothelioma and asbestosis.
In the meantime, before the removal process can begin, it is wise to limit the number of trips you take to the location of the insulation so as not to disturb it and further endanger yourself or others you live with. Since this type of insulation is mainly used in attics, you can protect your family by keeping children away from attics and not storing boxes or other items in that area before the asbestos is removed.
Zonolite, however, is not the only brand name that contains asbestos. Other insulation brands commonly used in the United States that contained asbestos included Hi-Temp, Gold Bond, Super 66, and Hy-Temp.
A naturally occurring mineral compound, vermiculite is composed of shiny flakes that look like mica. If vermiculite is put under extreme heat or high temperatures, it can expand up to 30 times its original size. Expanded vermiculite is shaped like a small-size nugget, sometimes gray-brown in color or often silver-gold. If you suspect vermiculite insulation in your home, inspect the area without disturbing any of the insulation. If you check your insulation and find that it matches this description, it may contain asbestos. Unless the insulation has been disturbed, you are most likely not in immediate danger of being exposed to asbestos. However, if the insulation has been disturbed enough to release the asbestos fibers into the air, you may be at risk. In either case, it’s best to stay on the safe side and call a certified asbestos contractor who can replace your insulation and safely remove the current insulation without putting you in harm’s way.
Although homes and buildings constructed before the 1980s are most at risk for asbestos exposure, that doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods if the building in question was built in the 1990s or after. The last asbestos mine in the U.S. did not close until 2002, and because a complete ban on asbestos mining, manufacturing, and use has not been passed, there’s still a chance your home’s insulation contains the toxic mineral.
Several acts and bills have gone through the circuit to ban the toxin completely, but none have passed to date. Plus, each state’s laws and regulations on asbestos are different, so how much leniency your state has or had on the product depends on where you live. Although mining has ceased in the U.S., asbestos is still imported from Brazil, with as much as 750 tons of the mineral imported in 2018.
Because asbestos exposure can lead to cancer-causing illnesses such as mesothelioma, the World Health Organization has fought for a worldwide ban of it since 2005, with no luck. (More than 60 countries have completely banned asbestos, however, including the United Kingdom, Spain, and Argentina.) Beyond the U.S., countries like India and Russia still use the fibers for gaskets, insulation, cloth, and other materials. Since no full ban of asbestos is in place, it can be harder to regulate. For this reason, it’s essential to call an expert if you suspect you may have asbestos insulation in your home, even if it was built after the 1980s. The harmful fiber could be lurking in places you weren’t expecting, too, like your flooring, ceilings, and wallpaper.
Unfortunately, the average homeowner will not be able to identify asbestos by seeing or smelling it. This makes it even more hazardous, as detecting it without the help of a professional is practically impossible.
Some may think that if their home was recently inspected it should be safe and free from asbestos. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Testing for asbestos requires cutting or drilling for samples and is beyond the scope of a home inspector’s qualifications or requirements. Whether you own a historic home or are renovating one that could contain asbestos, specific asbestos inspection should be done before inhabiting or working on the house to ensure asbestos isn’t detected. Plus, asbestos can be found in a wide range of areas in the home, from bricks and ceiling tiles to cement and insulation, so it’s best to test all relevant areas beforehand.
Just like it’s impossible to see asbestos fibers with the naked eye, it’s also impossible to smell asbestos since it doesn’t have an odor. You could inhale the fibers through your nose and mouth for years and never realize it until your body starts showing symptoms of exposure—which are the symptoms of asbestos-related diseases. These symptoms include shortness of breath, dry cough, wheezing, and chest pain or tightness. For this reason, it’s imperative to test for asbestos before beginning renovation or moving into an older home.
There are no federal mandates on asbestos removal, but different states and municipalities have regulations on who can remove asbestos. Because of the dangers that airborne asbestos poses, though, asbestos removal is not something that the average homeowner should take on themselves. Asbestos abatement professionals receive special education and licensure from the state. Additionally, asbestos won’t always need to be removed—enclosure or encapsulation is another option, and your asbestos abatement pro will know what the best course of action is.
There’s no reason to hesitate to call a professional if you suspect the presence of asbestos in your home’s insulation. Even if you have a doubt, the peace of mind an expert can provide is worth having it checked out. An asbestos removal professional will not only have the knowledge and experience to help identify the presence of asbestos but will also have the necessary safety gear to ensure further exposure doesn’t put you or your family at risk. If there is no presence of asbestos insulation in your home, good for you—but you may also want to consider having your home’s insulation repaired, refilled, or replaced, especially if it’s been years and your home is not retaining heat the way it used to.
While asbestos can seem like an insurmountable obstacle in the home, its presence can be effectively treated and your home will be safe to live in. Thanks to Environmental Protection Agency laws, states are required to regulate the professional removal of asbestos from properties. This means you can find state-approved testing professionals on city and county websites to ensure you hire a properly licensed pro. Once you call in the help of a pro, they will likely bring in an asbestos kit to perform an asbestos test in the area or areas you suspect contain the toxic substance. Plus, if asbestos is detected, they can provide an estimate of how much asbestos removal will cost.
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