Can You Live in a House with Asbestos?

Between the 1940s and the late 1980s, asbestos was regarded as a viable building material. Asbestos is fire resistant, durable, and insulates buildings efficiently.  During the 1970s and the 1980s, however, it became common knowledge that asbestos can cause a wide range of health issues, including among other things:

–    Asbestosis which is damage to the lung tissue that results in breathing difficulties

–    Lung cancer that develops as the result of prolonged exposure to asbestos,

–    Mesothelioma which is cancer that affects the lungs, chest, diaphragm, and pleura

–    Pleura Plaques or scar tissue on the lung lining.

As a result, asbestos is no longer used in building projects, and most countries stopped mining asbestos altogether. In fact, more than fifty countries have banned asbestos.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring silicate mineral that consists of tiny fibres. The danger of asbestos lies therein that, when disturbed, a dust cloud of asbestos fibres can form that is easy to inhale. The asbestos hysteria that took place was escalated by the fact that asbestos products are present in many structural components, boards, and cladding around the typical residential home.

Asbestos can be firmly bound or loosely bound. Firmly bound asbestos may be present in the following places in old homes:

–    Flue pipes

–    Vinyl floor tiles

–    Flexible building boards

–    Cement pipe columns

–    Artificial brick cladding

–    Textured paint

Loosely bound asbestos was commonly used in residential homes as insulation for ceilings, stoves, old domestic heaters, and hot water pipes.

The natural question to ask is whether you can live in a house with asbestos. The first thing to determine is whether you have asbestos in your home. Generally speaking houses in Australia built after 1990 are not likely to have products or components that contain asbestos. On the other hand, if your house was constructed before the 1980s, or even during the 1980s, there is a high probability that you have asbestos-containing components in your home.  

It is not easy to determine if building materials contain asbestos, and you will have to submit a sample for testing to an accredited laboratory. If the material is not tested, it is best to treat it as if it contains asbestos to be on the safe side.

You can live in a house with asbestos. If you live in an old house, the chances are that you have been living with asbestos for some time. When the asbestos-containing material is disturbed, deteriorating, or broken, however, it can be harmful to your health. For example, if you drill, sand, or cut these building materials, it will produce a cloud of asbestos fibres that you or people living in your home may inhale.

Is it Safe to Leave Asbestos Undisturbed?

Asbestos is only harmful to one’s health when the fibres are exposed. An undisturbed piece of material that contains asbestos doesn’t produce airborne particles in the same way you don’t inhale particles from an undisturbed brick wall.

People who suffer from asbestos-related conditions typically have been exposed to asbestos dust for a prolonged period. For example, asbestos miners or factory workers tend to develop these conditions over time.

Although undisturbed asbestos in your home is not necessarily a health hazard, you shouldn’t ignore the presence of asbestos. Over time, the structural components and materials in your home that contain asbestos will deteriorate or experience some degree of disturbance, which results in the formation of asbestos fibre clouds in your home.

For example, if you hammer a nail into a wall with aging artificial brick cladding, asbestos fibres may be released into your home without you seeing or smelling it. These fibres can then stay airborne inside your house for years and impact you and your family’s health.

So, although it is safe to leave asbestos undisturbed, the chances are that, as you carry on with your daily life and activities like remodelling your home, you will probably disturb it. If you live in an area with severe weather and occurrences like hurricanes, the asbestos in your home can also become disturbed and pose a health risk.

Also, you may find it unsettling to live in a home that contains cancer-causing materials. It can take as long as thirty years after exposure to asbestos for symptoms and conditions like cancer to develop.

If you didn’t build your house yourself and suspect that there may be materials that contain asbestos, your best course of action is to hire a contractor to remove the asbestos safely from your home. Though, if you are willing to follow the required steps and safety procedures, you can remove the asbestos-containing materials yourself.

Can I Legally Remove Asbestos Myself?

You can legally remove asbestos yourself. If you are dealing with loosely-bound asbestos, however, it is recommended that you hire the services of a professional contractor.

When removing asbestos yourself, the key is to minimise the release of asbestos fibres and to actively protect all occupants, including yourself, as well as neighbours and the environment while removing, packing, transporting, and disposing of asbestos.

When working with asbestos, wear an overall, hat, and gloves that you can dispose of in the prescribed manner. You should also wear a disposable half-face particulate or filter respirator fitted with a particulate cartridge that can trap asbestos fibres.

A conventional dust mask will not be sufficient, as it will not trap asbestos fibres. An asbestos fibre looks like a needle with barbs on each end. Fibres that are longer than five microns and wider than one micron do the most damage, and it is essential to wear a mask that prevents you from inhaling them.

Prepare the area before you work. Make sure that the room is well-ventilated and place plastic drop sheets on the floor to capture any debris. Then, wet the asbestos surface you are working on to prevent the production of asbestos dust clouds. Another precautionary measure to avoid clouds of asbestos in the air is to refrain from using power tools, including drills, angle grinders, and sanders, and to use hand tools instead.

After removing a sheet, place it gently on the floor instead of dropping it. If you have to sweep a surface, use a wet mop to prevent particles from becoming airborne. After removing all the asbestos-containing materials, use a vacuum cleaner for asbestos fibre collection to vacuum the area. The vacuum cleaner should be fitted with a True-HEPA filter to capture all asbestos particles.

Place the vacuum waste in a sealable bag and put your clothes in a container marked “Asbestos-contaminated clothing.” You should keep your respirator on while sealing the vacuum waste and contaminated clothing. Then, dispose of your clothes, the vacuum waste, and asbestos materials at an appropriate disposal facility.

If you are not sure on the best practices for the disposal of asbestos and materials that were contaminated by asbestos, contact the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) for more information.

Do the following to limit exposure:

–    Keep asbestos materials wet

–    Use heavy-duty builders’ plastic containers, and seal all plastic materials with tape

–    Place warning labels on all packets

–    Pre-arrange for disposal at facilities that are approved by the EPA

After removing the asbestos from your home, take a shower and make sure that you wash your body and hands thoroughly.

Who Can Help Me Remove Asbestos?

Although it is entirely possible to remove asbestos-containing materials yourself, it is highly recommended that you use the services of a certified professional contractor. Contact the EPA to find a list or professionals in your area that are certified to remove asbestos from your home.

When you schedule an appointment with a professional to remove asbestos, make sure that you and your family are not inside the house. During the removal process, there may be a presence of airborne asbestos particles that are easy to inhale. If you, for some reason, have to be home, stay away from the area and make sure that you wear an EPA-approved respirator.

In Summary

Asbestos is a silicate mineral that consists of tiny fibres that form a dust cloud when they are disturbed, when you inhale these fibres your risk for health problems, such as lung cancer and asbestosis increase significantly.

If you live in a home built before 1990, there is a chance that the building may contain undisturbed asbestos. As long as asbestos is intact, you are not likely to inhale any asbestos fibres. However, during remodelling projects and simple renovations, asbestos fibres can become airborne and the risk for inhalation increases.

You can legally remove asbestos from your home yourself, but it is an extensive process, and if you don’t feel confident that you can remove it safely, contact a certified contractor. To find a suitable contractor in your area, contact the EPA or do an online search.

Once completely removed from your home, you can rest assured that you and your family won’t be exposed to harmful asbestos fibres in the air.