We are often asked about the relative safety of materials found in the home. Parents justifiably want to know if the home they are providing for their family is safe, and during the stress of purchasing a home some words can elicit a knee-jerk reaction… words such as lead, mold, asbestos.
What is Asbestos and What is the Danger
According to the Mesothelioma Center, “Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that can be pulled into a fluffy consistency. Asbestos fibers are soft and flexible yet resistant to heat, electricity and corrosion. These qualities make the mineral useful, but they also make asbestos exposure highly toxic.”
“Pure asbestos is an effective insulator, and it can be used in cloth, paper, cement, plastic and other materials to make them stronger. But when someone inhales or ingests asbestos dust, the mineral fibers can become forever trapped in their body.”
Exposure to the breathing of asbestos fibers is never safe. It is clearly implicated in a number of diseases, including a variety of cancers. Its danger began being documented by those in its industry as far back as the 1930’s. Dangerous exposures typically fall into two categories: brief but significant exposure, or regular modest exposure over time.
Sampling, testing and cleanup of asbestos should always be done by a trained professional. The handling of a dangerous material by someone untrained and ill-equipped to save a few dollars is just a bad idea.
Asbestos can be found in several forms in older homes, but it is important to understand the issue of friability, as it has a lot to do with risk levels.
Friability is a measurement of how easy it is to break or crumble a material by hand. Some asbestos-containing material (ACM) is easily crumbled, releasing fibers into the air without difficulty. Other ACM is relatively nonfriable, meaning the fibers are typically kept safely trapped as long as the material is left undisturbed.
Examples of friable asbestos include vermiculite insulation and asbestos wraps and tapes whose edges are fraying. Examples of less friable asbestos include painted popcorn ceilings, vinyl asbestos tiles and cement asbestos siding. While the fibers in these materials are contained, they are always dangerous to drill, saw, scrape or otherwise disturb.
So where can asbestos be found in a home? Just about anywhere. We have already mentioned popcorn ceilings, heating duct wraps and tape, and vermiculite insulation (we wrote an extensive blog on vermiculite insulation in October 2014; the article is still available here https://watermeadevalley.com/vermiculite-insulation-what-it-is-why-you-should-be-concerned-and-what-you-can-do-about-it/.) Asbestos can also be found in some plasters and drywalls, some electrical wiring insulation, and some cement. According to the Mesothelioma Center, “Pure asbestos can be made into paper, felt, cloth or rope. Asbestos fibers have also been mixed into cements, drywall compounds, plastics, paints, sealants, and adhesives.”
Without downplaying the potential issues with asbestos, friability and access are critical when it comes to making decisions about a home. Vinyl tile in good condition that could contain asbestos needs to be judged differently from an ACM that is both accessible and friable.
If you have any general questions about asbestos used in a home, give us a call. We are not a lab, do not do testing, cannot confirm the existence of asbestos, and do not handle or collect asbestos. But we are sufficiently knowledgable about the material to maybe help put it into perspective during a home purchase.