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Asbestos in the Home: Where to Find It, What to Do About It, and Associated Health Risks

If your home was built between the 1940s and the 1980s, there's a very good chance that it contains asbestos. And if you're planning on doing any kind of renovation in your home today, you need to understand the health hazards associated with asbestos, as well as how to protect yourself from this toxic substance.

Asbestos is an organically occurring fibrous mineral, which has long been prized for its extreme ability to resist heat and fire, as well as its strength, durability, and flexibility. Since it can be woven into cloth or mixed with other materials to create building products, asbestos was widely used during the mid-20th century in a variety of commercial, residential, automotive and maritime applications. It was considered so useful, in fact, that at one time the United States military actually mandated its usage on Navy ships.

Unfortunately, asbestos has become known as a carcinogen. Its microscopic, needle-like fibers are easily inhaled when the material is damaged or crushed, and they can lead to devastating diseases such as mesothelioma—a cancer of the lining surrounding the bodily organs—lung cancer, asbestosis and pleural fibrosis. According to the EPA and OSHA, there is no safe level of asbestos exposure.

Most people, when they think about asbestos, think of insulation. Yet the material is used in many other places in the home, including door gaskets in furnaces, wood stoves or coal stoves; cement sheeting, millboard and paper used as insulation around furnaces and stoves; insulation for steam pipes, boilers and furnace ducts; cement roofing, shingles and siding; patching and joint compounds; textured paints; acoustical tiles used on the ceiling or walls; spray-on soundproofing or decorative material used on walls and ceilings; floor tiles, vinyl sheet flooring and floor tile backings and adhesives.

Because asbestos may lurk in many places, it is vital that you exercise caution when attempting a do-it-yourself home repair, construction or renovation project. First and foremost, if you know that asbestos exists in your home, it may be wise to leave its removal to the professionals. Asbestos abatement should be carried out by trained, qualified and well-equipped contractors. Even if you simply suspect the presence of asbestos, it is recommended that you have air samples taken by professionals.

Often, asbestos-containing materials are safe when they remain undisturbed. It's only when they become damaged that they pose a harm. If a material in your home—such as flooring—contains asbestos, you may consider installing new flooring over it instead of removing it. Likewise, you should avoid drilling, sawing, sanding, scraping, or brushing asbestos materials. If there is debris present that may contain asbestos—crumbling insulation or flood-damaged building materials, for example—do not attempt to sweep, vacuum, remove or clean the area. When in doubt, contact a trained asbestos abatement contractor to perform inspection and testing of your home. These professionals can advise you on proper renovation procedures in order to keep you and your family safe from the hazard of asbestos.

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