Asbestos was used in many types of building products from roofing, siding, and attic insulation to floor tiles, adhesives, and furnace ductwork insulation in the United States from the 1930’s to the 1970’s. And finding suspected asbestos-containing components in homes doesn’t mean something needs to be done about it immediately. As long as it is intact, it’s best to just leave it alone. It’s only when it is damaged that asbestos may release fibers into the air and pose a health risk. If you have intact material that you suspect contains asbestos, removing a piece of it to test will damage it, so it is worth considering the pros and cons of sampling before choosing one way or the other.
What is Asbestos?
It is a fireproof mineral fiber that also resists water, heat, chemicals, and electricity and has been found and mined in countries all around the world since the Stone Ages, around 750,000 years ago. Embalmed bodies of Egyptian pharaohs were wrapped in asbestos cloth between 2000 and 3000 BC to protect their bodies from deterioration. Clay pots made in Finland around 2500 BC were made with asbestos fibers, which strengthened the pots and made them resistant to fire and high heat. The Greeks, Romans, and French wrapped the bodies of their dead leaders in asbestos cloths and during the First Crusade in 1095, asbestos bags were filled with pitch and tar and catapulted over the city walls during battle. Marco Polo, in 1280, wrote about “a fabric which would not burn”. Benjamin Franklin had a purse made of asbestos, the Italian government put asbestos fibers into its paper money, and the Parisian Fire Brigade protected themselves with asbestos jackets and helmets, in 1850.
Asbestos became an essential component in many different industries in the United States: the auto industry, construction, manufacturing, power and chemical industries, and in all branches of the military. It was a mineral that protected workers and soldiers and sailors from fire and was an effective insulator. It was mined in the United States until the last asbestos mine closed in 2002.
Asbestos was used in almost every area of the United States. It was in the asphalt on some of the roads that were built from the 1930’s to 1950’s. It was in concrete, roofing and flooring, thermal insulation for residences and businesses, electric panels, plaster, and brake pads, seals, gaskets, and clutches on cars, trucks, and airplanes.
Miners and factory and shipyard workers, who were exposed to high levels of asbestos fibers over a prolonged time period developed mesothelioma (lung cancer in the lining of the chest and abdominal cavity) and asbestosis (the lungs being scarred with fibrous tissue) and died young. Because of the health risks associated with asbestos fibers, 17 countries banned the use of asbestos in 2003 and the European Union banned it in 2005. The United States does not have a ban on asbestos – it is still used in many construction and household products. The items that contain asbestos in the US, now, are labelled with that information. As recently as 2018, the EPA was considering new uses for asbestos.
Fortunately for most of us, we do not have long-term exposure to damaged or deteriorating asbestos-containing materials. It is very durable, so we might see it in shingles on exterior walls of houses, older furnace ducts and boilers insulated with asbestos tape or blankets or floor tiles with asbestos in them. We also might see it on “popcorn” ceilings and around old wood and coal stoves. As long as those areas are not disturbed and the materials remain undamaged, they are not releasing fibers into the air and therefore are not posing a health risk.
If the asbestos-containing materials are intact, nothing needs to be done with them – nothing needs to be “fixed”. Most of those materials can be encapsulated and then left alone. If, however, you decide to have some of the materials removed because they are damaged, the safest option is to hire a certified asbestos contractor who has the training required by the EPA (and many states, including Maryland) to remove the asbestos-containing materials and dispose of it while minimizing the chance of asbestos fibers becoming airborne.
Check out the Maryland Department of the Environment’s list of asbestos contractors here Licensed Contractors to Remove/Encapsulate Asbestos.