December 5, 2023

Asbestos – What is it?

Photo of asbestos chrysotile fibers.

Found naturally on every continent in the world, asbestos is a mineral with long, thin fibers resistant to heat, electricity and corrosion. These unique properties made it a desirable material for human use dating back to the Stone Age, where ancient people crafted lamps and candles with its long hair-like fibers. Later, Egyptians wrapped the bodies of pharaohs in asbestos cloth to protect them from deterioration. And in Finland, clay pots dating back to 2500 BC contained asbestos fibers, which strengthened the pots and made them resistant to fire.

Do modern products contain asbestos?

The same qualities that made asbestos a desirable material for ancient people also made it desirable for modern humans. Its superior fiber strength and heat resistance makes it an excellent material for a wide range of manufactured goods, including:

  • Building materials
  • Insulation
  • Fire retardants
  • Paper products
  • Cement products
  • Friction products (automobile clutch, brake and transmission parts)
  • Heat-resistant fabrics
  • Packaging
  • Gaskets
  • Coatings

But wait, isn’t it hazardous?!

Breaking up products made with asbestos causes tiny fibers to release into the air. Breathing in these fibers then traps them in the lungs. Over time, these fibers accumulate, causing scarring and inflammation, which can affect breathing and lead to serious health problems. 

Low levels of asbestos are present naturally in air, water and soil, so most people receive some exposure during their lifetime. However, this level of exposure usually does not make people ill. Rather, people who become sick from asbestos are usually those exposed to it on a regular basis, most often in a job where they work directly with the material or through substantial environmental contact. 

Asbestos is classified as a known human carcinogen (a substance that causes cancer) by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society. Exposure can cause mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of the lungs, stomach, heart and other organs), lung cancer, ovarian cancer and laryngeal cancer.

That’s terrible! It must be banned, right?

No, asbestos is not banned in the United States. While the last mine in the US closed in 2002, the US still imports and uses asbestos, mostly in the oil and automotive industries.

I have an older home. Is there asbestos in it?!

Even though asbestos use stopped in most industries and products by the late 1970s, older buildings are loaded with products containing asbestos. Because of its inherent strength and heat-resistance, asbestos was a perfect ingredient for many common building materials used through the late 1970’s, including:

  • Cement
  • Insulation for electric wiring
  • Roofing tiles
  • Thermal insulation
  • Plaster brocade or skim coats
  • Spray-on fire-retardant coatings
  • Vinyl tile and sheet flooring
  • Mastic (glue) for vinyl tile and sheet flooring
  • Joint compound in drywall
  • Popcorn drywall texture
  • HVAC duct tape
  • Vermiculite insulation

If your home predates 1980, it may contain asbestos.

I’m planning a kitchen remodel. Will I be required to test for asbestos?

DEQ of Oregon policy requires all commercial buildings regardless of construction date, and residential buildings constructed before Jan. 1, 2004, to have an asbestos survey conducted by an accredited inspector prior to any demolition or renovation activities.

However, it depends on who is doing the work.

  • If you are self-performing (not hiring a general contractor) a renovation inside your own home in a single unit building and do not plan on renting it out, you do not need comply with the survey requirements.
  • If you are self-performing (not hiring a general contractor) a renovation inside your own home but plan to rent the space, you must comply with the survey requirements.
  • If you are hiring a general contractor to do the work, you (or the contractor) must comply with the survey requirements.

If you do the work yourself, DEQ and common sense still recommend performing an asbestos survey. Further, if you are required to perform a survey, a copy must be on-site during all renovation or demolition activities and must be provided to DEQ upon request.

How do I test for asbestos?

In Oregon, homeowners can take their own samples and send them to an accredited lab for testing. Prior to collecting and sending samples, homeowners should contact the lab of their choice to access the specific requirements for sample size, quantities and handling procedures.

If handling hazardous materials isn’t for you, you can hire an accredited inspector to perform the survey and generate a report. Hiring a certified inspector will ensure the correct samples are taken and analyzed.

Oh no – the test was positive for asbestos! Am I required to remove it?

It depends. If you won’t disturb the material, you can cover it up. For example, you can cover old 9×9 vinyl tile with new flooring. However, if you must cut into that old flooring to install a new stair, you’ll need to remove it. 

Can I remove it myself?

Like the testing requirements above, if you are self-performing your remodel in your own home and do not plan to rent it out, you can remove the material yourself. However, properly removing asbestos-containing material requires special equipment and training. DEQ strongly advises against repairing or removing these materials yourself. Improperly handling these materials could put you, your family and community at risk of exposure to hazardous asbestos fibers.

If you choose to do your own abatement work, you are responsible for following all handling, transportation and disposal regulations as defined by the DEQ. Additionally, waste material containing asbestos requires special packaging, a completed asbestos waste shipment form (ASN4), and must be disposed of at a landfill permitted to accept asbestos waste.

That’s too scary. I’d rather hire a professional to get rid of it.

Good idea! If you’re a homeowner doing your own remodel and don’t want to remove the asbestos yourself, you can hire a licensed abatement contractor. They will perform the entire abatement, from planning and site protection, to removal and disposal.

If you’ve hired a general contractor for your remodel, your contractor will sub-contract with an abatement contractor for the removal. For all projects other than homeowner self-performed remodels, only licensed abatement contractors may remove asbestos-containing materials.

What’s next?

Remodeling projects present homeowners with learning curves, such as dealing with asbestos. When you partner with the right architect and contractor you receive proper guidance and access to valuable resources and experts to address project surprises. We welcome the opportunity to help you navigate your next project. Contact us.