Asbestos Insulation and Remodeling

By Arpaporn Keasakul 

Be wary of asbestos insulation if you have a beautiful old home, and you are keen to restore it back to it’s natural glory.

Houses built prior to the 1970’s commonly contain asbestos. Asbestos is a material that can cause mesothelioma, a rare type of cancer. When discovered, asbestos was regarded as a highly desirable building material. It could be used to fill gaps, cover items, and combine with paints to provide insulation in addition to a number of other benefits. It was both fireproof and a great insulator. It was not until millions of homes were built with this material, that the cancer risk was exposed.

If you discover asbestos in your home, do not panic. It is usually only when the part of your house that contains asbestos is disturbed in some way, and subsequently releases particles, that you will have any trouble. In many cases the asbestos is encapsulated or prevented from movement and there is no danger to the homeowner.

Parts of a Home Susceptible to Asbestos Contamination

The first three places to assume you would have asbestos in your old home would be the attic, basement or roof. Exercise extreme caution if you are replacing  or fixing any of the following:

  • steel beams
  • water pipes
  • ducts
  • gaskets
  • stovepipe rings
  • electrical wiring
  • vinyl flooring
  • linoleum flooring
  • shingles
  • wall panels
  • dividers
  • acoustic panels
  • heaters
  • boilers
  • furnaces
  • incinerators
  • artificial fireplaces

These areas were often covered in insulation, or contained insulation within them.  For instance steel beam might be covered in an asbestos insulation to keep them from warping in the event of a fire. Boilers often had an insulating blanket of asbestos. Wiring would not usually be covered with asbestos unless the wiring ran near a furnace, but the wires might pass through walls insulated with asbestos, and pulling the wires could bring loose asbestos with it.

If you are remodeling a pre-1970’s home, it’s advisable to get an asbestos removal professional to check your home before you start to work. If any of these parts of the home are tampered with, they may release loose particles of asbestos, which can be inhaled by yourself and other people present in the home. If you see a soft and fluffy material that is white or gray, do not touch it under any circumstances, and call an asbestos expert immediately.

Asbestos Insulation Professionals

Because even a small amount of contact with the material can result in cancer, it’s best to leave the removal of asbestos to professionals. When you first encounter what you suspect to be asbestos, stay calm and leave it alone. As long as it’s not disturbed, it’s probably not going to cause any immediate harm. Asbestos professionals are trained in working with asbestos and removing asbestos They have protective equipment and are experienced at testing for it.

If the asbestos is in the plumbing, then it’s advisable to have a plumber and an asbestos removal person work together, as the asbestos, as well as the pipes will have to be removed. The same applies for roofing professionals, if you’re placing parts of the roof when the asbestos is being removed, then you’ll need the asbestos specialist to work with a roofing repairmen.

If you Have Asbestos Insulation Do Not Panic

Just because your home has components that contain asbestos, does not necessarily mean you need to go out and remove those components straight away. In fact, only if the the component is friable (loose and releasing dust) will it ever be a real concern. In fact, you could do more harm then good by trying to remove a component that is just fine as it is. Plenty of homeowners have shingles, panels or other items which contain asbestos, and they get along just fine, as long as the the component stays intact.

There are two basic things you can do with asbestos insulation, containment and removal. In products like the shingles mentioned above the asbestos is contained within a media and will not be a problem.  In some cases, as with pipe insulation, containment might involve wrapping an additional layer around the pipes, but if there ever needs to be work done on the pipe and that containment layer needs to be pierced, an asbestos professional should be called in.

Removing asbestos is not cheap, but it is done all the time.  It will seem like an expense without a benefit, but if it protects your family, or if it restores the value of your home, then it may be a very cost-effective investment.

Editor's Notes:

So what are the dangers of asbestos insulation? Asbestos causes mesothelioma, a type of cancer that attacks the mesothelia.  The mesothelia is a lining that protects various organs in your body.  It is found in the lungs, which is where asbestos fibers usually cause their damage.  People who work with asbestos breathe in small fibers which lodge in the lungs.  

It takes at least 15 years to move from exposure to cancer, and it may even take several decades. That is why lawyers are still advertising for Mesothelioma victims 40 years after the use of asbestos was banned.

If you contract mesothelioma your chances are not good.  It is a killer.

However, if you think that you have breathed in asbestos fibers all is not lost.  Not everyone who is exposed to asbestos gets cancer. Discuss your exposure with your doctor, but do not let the fear of cancer ruin the life that you have.

Remember, while asbestos was common it was not the only insulating material used.  Cellulose, vermiculite and mineral wool were also used. So don't assume something was asbestos.  Check it out.

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