A relatively old environmental hazard…
For anyone of a certain age, like myself, memories abound of elementary school productions done on a stage laden with asbestos shingles ceiling tiles, as well as asbestos-lined drapery. Aah…the good old days…When ignorance of carcinogens was true bliss. Somewhere after my generation’s death-defying leap into the unknown world of cancer-causing agents, the federal government, in the guise of the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), started listing asbestos as a known carcinogen. Oops.
As a real estate broker today, I am well-versed in the dangers of the many environmental hazards that buildings can pose. Among the worst are asbestos. In it’s solid state, the material remains of little danger. But once it begins to fray and flake off, becoming exposed to the air and breathable, that is when it becomes a known cancer threat.
A little background on asbestos
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral fiber that is found in soil and rock. Since asbestos is resistant to heat, fire, and chemicals and does not conduct electricity, it is used for a number of purposes. The fiber has long been used as a construction material in buildings for insulation and as a fire retardant. It is also found in many manufactured goods. These include prefabricated building materials such as ceiling panels, cement products and floor tiles, friction products like automobile clutches and brakes, heat resistant fabrics and packaging materials.
Asbestos was widely used between 1920 and 1989, after which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began regulating materials containing asbestos. The fire retardant material can most commonly be found in buildings, but also in gas heaters, hair dryers, some clothing and automotive brakes. Walls, flooring, pipes, textured paints, insulation, fireproofing materials, pipes, electric wiring, and even chalkboards constructed between 1920 and 1989 may contain asbestos. If the building was constructed between 1920 and 1989, chances are something in the building was constructed with materials containing the material.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, asbestos has been found to pose a serious health risk when its fibers become loose and airborne, since breathing them in can cause scarring of the tissue lining the lungs (causing mesothelioma) and even lung cancer. You can check for signs of asbestos on your own, but testing should be done by a certified professional using special equipment. If asbestos is present, hire a contractor to repair or remove the materials that contain it to ensure the safety of yourself and people using your property. Trying to do asbestos removal on your own is not only illegal, it’s really, really stupid.
A bit more about cancers linked to asbestos
There are about 4,800 asbestos-related lung cancer deaths in the United States each year. The second most diagnosed asbestos-related cancer is mesothelioma. Over 3,000 people in the U.S. are affected each year. Some other cancers that are confirmed to be caused by asbestos are ovarian cancer and laryngeal cancer. In addition, the risk of colorectal cancer, gastrointestinal cancer, kidney cancer and cancer of the esophagus are thought to increase with increased exposure to asbestos. So, rather obviously, you’d want to avoid it like the plague.
The EPA says that those who are exposed to asbestos fibers are at a greater risk of developing lung cancer. When the fibers are inhaled, they get trapped by the lungs and stay there, causing big problems. The risk is particularly worse for smokers. As previously noted, those who are exposed to asbestos may also develop mesothelioma. It is a type of cancer that usually occurs in the thin lining of the heart, lung, chest and the abdomen. Asbestosis is another dangerous health affect that is associated with the exposure to asbestos. It is a chronic disease of the lungs that is characterized by shortness of breath and coughing and may negatively impact the respiratory function. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2004, asbestos-related diseases such as lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis from occupational exposure to the fibers were responsible for well over 100,000 deaths.
Signs to look for…
You can’t tell whether an item contains asbestos just by looking at it. Instead, look for warning signs that construction materials are degrading. Asbestos isn’t dangerous when it’s still in good condition, but when it starts to break down and the fibers are released in the air, it becomes toxic. Look for signs of older materials that have become worn out or damaged.
Among other things, be on the look out for disintegrating pipes, insulation, walls, tiles, vinyl flooring, stovetop pads, and other older materials that have been present in a house since its construction. Also, look for cracks, dusty areas and spots where the material seems to be in the process of breaking down and falling apart.
The search for asbestos
You can certainly test for asbestos in a house yourself using an asbestos testing kit, available online, or at any Home Depot or Lowes stores. They’re readily available and simple to use and obtain test results. However, again, do not attempt to perform any asbestos abatement yourself if any is found. I have previously written here how “one of the simplest environmental hazards to find is asbestos in the house. When checking the basement of any property, make sure you look for asbestos-covered pipes. The off-white colored asbestos is a known carcinogen, and if the asbestos is fraying, it’s certainly airborne – and an immediate danger to anyone breathing in that basement. If you’re still not sure whether the investment property you’re scouting out has asbestos-lined pipes, a home inspector can determine it for you. Also, licensed asbestos handling companies can not only tell you if there is any asbestos in the house, but what condition it’s in as well. And they are the only ones that can legally remove and dispose of the asbestos.
It is routine for the seller to pay for the removal or containment (encapsulation) of the asbestos. However, if the property is a foreclosure, or a short sale, the owner may not be able to perform the remediation, and you’ll have to include the removal as another cost of purchasing the property. It’s always best to have the asbestos removed, rather than encapsulated. While encapsulation is certainly less expensive than removal, you could have an issue when it comes time to sell the property. After all, what happens if a water pipe that was encapsulated develops a leak? In that eventuality, the asbestos will have to be removed in order to get at the pipe. And most buyers will not want to deal with that possibility. So removal makes far more sense than encapsulation.”
One last reminder
Remember that if you’re going to test for asbestos using a contractor, you’ll need to use an EPA-approved contractor. They are specifically trained and licensed in handling asbestos, and in how to analyze the suspected particles, as well as filing the necessary paperwork required by the EPA. If you are going to collect the samples yourself, you’ll still have to give the samples to an EPA-certified laboratory for analysis, and give them the protective gear you wore during the collection for proper disposal. Will the fun never end?
photos courtesy of mesothelioma.com, washingtonpost.com, concreteconstruction.net, commons.wikimedia.org, 360degrees.uk.com, seattle-asbestos.com, sema.dps.mo.gov