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The short answer to the question, “Is there asbestos in my home?” is “Yes, probably.” How much, where, and whether you should worry, depends mostly on when your home was built and what condition it is in.

In the U.S., if your home was built after the mid-1990s there might be asbestos in roof shingles, floor tiles, cement pipes and boards, caulking compounds, and joint cements. However, this is not necessarily something to worry about.

Asbestos is a mineral that breaks into small fibers. The fibers are dangerous to breathe, because if they settle in the lungs they can cause mesothelioma, a deadly lung cancer, and asbestosis, a debilitating disease that interferes with breathing. You should also avoid ingesting asbestos. However, as long as the asbestos fibers are encased in something so that the fibers can’t be breathed, or get into your water — generally the case with newer construction materials — you can safely leave it where it is.

Insulation in Home Built Before the mid-1990s

Homes built between 1920 and 1950 may have asbestos insulation. Also, be aware that homes built after 1950, and possibly as recently as the mid-1990s, may contain an insulation called Zonolite made of vermiculite contaminated with asbestos. The vermiculite came from a mine in Libby, Montana, a community so contaminated with asbestos the EPA recently declared Libby to be a public health disaster.

As long as the insulation is enclosed in a wall where fibers cannot escape, it is not hazardous. However, if walls are damaged, or if your remodeling plans involve cutting into a wall, you must arrange for state-certified asbestos abatement specialists to deal with the insulation. They may either remove it or find some way to contain it. But do not handle the insulation yourself.

Asbestos in Homes Built Before 1980

Here are just some of the other places you might find asbestos in an older home:

Shingles and walls. From the 1920s and until 1978 asbestos cement shingles were a popular choice for housing exteriors. Also until the 1970s, cement sheet, millboard, and paper with a high asbestos content were used around fireplaces and wood burning stoves. Cutting or drilling these materials can release asbestos fibers into the air you breathe.

Soundproofing. Until the 1970s, soundproofing material containing asbestos was sprayed on walls and ceilings. Asbestos also was used in textured paint and patching compounds until 1977.  The asbestos in these applications can become loose and release asbestos into the air, if they haven’t already.

Hot water and steam pipes.  These may be coated with asbestos or wrapped with asbestos tape.

Oil and coal furnaces and door gaskets. Replacing an old basement furnace in your home can create an asbestos hazard.

Inspection and Abatement

At this point, you may be worried about the cracks, chips, and flaking in your older home. It cannot be stressed enough that if asbestos really is present, you need professional help to deal with it. Deal only with asbestos inspectors and asbestos abatement contractors that are licensed by your state.

The first step is assessing whether there really is an asbestos danger in your home. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that you hire an inspector who is independent from any abatement contractor you might use to avoid a conflict of interest.

Even if there is asbestos in your home, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have it all removed immediately. If the asbestos is in a place where it won’t get into the air or water, it may be left alone. But be aware that renovations or damage to your home might release the asbestos, and then you must call in an asbestos abatement contractor. Don’t try to deal with it yourself.

Barbara O’ Brien

Further information on asbestos exposure and mesothelioma cancer can be found at maacenter.org.

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