Homeowner’s Guide to Asbestos

Homeowner’s Guide to Asbestos

Before 1986, asbestos was widely used in the construction of residential homes. Common products made with asbestos included asphalt or cement roofing shingles, vinyl floor tiles, wall and ceiling insulation, and drywall. If a product is disturbed commercially (drilling or sanding) or naturally (earthquake or severe storm), it can release dangerous asbestos fibers.

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Asbestos is the name given to six silicate mineral fibers that occur naturally in the earth’s crust. It has been widely used in industry, residences and consumer products. The individual fibers are microscopic and can be seen only with an electron microscope.

Handling, damaging or disturbing asbestos can release these fibers into the air, where they can be inhaled. The human body is unable to absorb or dissolve these fibers, so they lodge deeply into the lungs, causing scar tissue and cancer cells to develop over a period of 10 to 40 or more years.

Exposure to asbestos is the only known cause of an aggressive and deadly cancer known as mesothelioma. Mesothelioma impacts the thin tissues surrounding the lungs or abdomen. Other conditions associated with asbestos exposure include lung cancer and asbestosis, a painful inflammatory condition that causes scarring of the lungs.

Why was it used in homes?

Asbestos fibers have historically been valued for their unique characteristics:

  • Fire and heat resistance
  • Chemical inertia
  • Non-conductivity to electricity
  • Tensile strength
  • Flexibility
  • Water resistance

Often referred to as a miracle mineral, these virtually indestructible fibers have been widely used in home construction for insulation, fireproofing, soundproofing and much more. Asbestos is abundant and inexpensive. By the 1930s, it had become an important component of residential construction.

By the late 1930s, asbestos manufacturers were aware of the health hazards associated with asbestos exposure. However, many of those manufacturers actively concealed this information and continued mining and selling the hazardous product to industries throughout the world.

After the public became aware of its hazards, asbestos use in residential buildings was phased out by 1986 as manufacturers were allowed to use the existing supply.

Common Places to Find Asbestos in Homes and Buildings

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Asbestos was used in more than 3,000 building products throughout most of the 20th century. The most common occurrences of residential asbestos in older homes built prior to 1986 are described below. All of these products can release dangerous asbestos fibers if they are sawed, sanded, drilled, cut, worn or otherwise damaged.

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