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A Potential Health Risk of DIY: Asbestos

When you renovate an older home, you can run across a lot of surprises. Some are great, like a beautiful hardwood floor hidden under an ugly, threadbare carpet. Others aren’t so great. But asbestos is one thing you never want to be surprised by. Knowing where asbestos might be found and taking precautions to deal with it safely are important steps to making sure your DIY project doesn’t put your health at serious risk.

According to the National Cancer Institute, asbestos is a mineral that occurs in the form of thread-like fibers. It resists heat and fire, which made it a popular building material in the middle part of the 20th century. Unfortunately, it turned out that while this material seemed potentially life-saving, it could actually be deadly.

The problem is that when asbestos is disturbed, it breaks apart, releasing those tiny fibers into the air. As the NCI explains, when those fibers are inhaled, they collect in the lungs and cause scarring and inflammation. And worst of all, they can cause cancer. Asbestos exposure can lead to both lung cancer and mesothelioma, a cancer affecting the membranes in the lungs and abdomen. In fact, almost all cases of mesothelioma are linked to asbestos exposure. The Environmental Protection Agency warns that children and people who smoke are at particularly high risk of developing cancer from asbestos exposure.

However, the EPA also states that as long as the asbestos is not disturbed or damaged, the fibers remain where they are, posing no threat. Because of this, the US government never completely banned asbestos or required it to be removed from homes, which means that many older homes still have asbestos-containing materials in them. And if you begin tearing those materials out as part of a renovation, you could easily expose yourself and others to harmful levels of those lung-scarring, cancer-causing asbestos fibers.

So, what do you need to watch out for? First of all, according to OSHA guidelines, there are several common home products that should be assumed to have asbestos in them if they were installed prior to 1981. These products include ceiling tiles, vinyl flooring, plaster, cement, caulk, and roofing and siding shingles.

Pre-1981 vinyl sheet flooring is considered particularly dangerous if disturbed. In fact, the EPA recommends that instead of removing and replacing asbestos-containing flooring, you should install the new flooring on top of it whenever possible. Vinyl wallpaper may also contain asbestos, although it’s generally considered less hazardous than other vinyl asbestos-containing products.

It’s also worth noting that since the US never completely banned asbestos, you can’t necessarily assume all products installed after 1981 are asbestos-free. If you have any suspicion that your renovation might disturb asbestos-containing products, the safest approach is to have a professional asbestos inspector assess the home before you begin the renovation. The EPA recommends that you hire an inspector who isn’t also an asbestos abatement contractor, or connected to one, in order to avoid a conflict of interest.

If asbestos is found and may be damaged or disturbed by the planned renovation, then the EPA strongly recommends having it removed by a trained professional. Asbestos removal done incorrectly can be extremely dangerous, even deadly, both to yourself and to any others who may be exposed, even if their only exposure is to invisible asbestos fibers stuck to your clothing or hair. This is one of those situations where, unfortunately, the best approach is not DIY.

Once the asbestos is gone, you can breathe easier knowing that you’ve taken an important step towards protecting your health and your family’s. And you won’t have to worry about coming across an unpleasant asbestos surprise.

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