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Let Certified Experts Juggle Asbestos


This column is called "Do-It-Yourself," but this time it is about something you shouldn't try on your own: removal of asbestos from the home.

Exposure to the one-time miracle mineral, used for lightweight fireproofing and insulation, is now known to cause serious health problems.

And if you live in a home built before 1978--when asbestos was prohibited--it's likely that asbestos-containing materials are present.

That does not mean you should tear your house down, or even that you are being exposed to anything harmful. In many cases, the asbestos-containing products are perfectly safe and should be left alone. They create problems only if damaged or disturbed.

But because Orange County homeowners are great remodelers, you should know just where asbestos is likely to be found--and what the rules are regarding its safe handling.

Knocking down walls, removing ceilings, ripping up linoleum or asbestos tile flooring and extending heating ducts all can create asbestos-exposure dangers.

Material containing asbestos is most dangerous when in a friable state--a broken, crumbled or pulverized condition in which asbestos-laden dust is released.

No one is now legally responsible for checking for the presence of asbestos before a project begins. But as of Jan. 1, a new South Coast Air Quality Management District rule will require professional contractors to test for the presence of asbestos before starting demolition or remodeling work and to ensure that workers and others are not exposed to asbestos during the project.

Peter Reum of Enkay Engineering, a Santa Ana-based, asbestos-removal contractor--one of fewer than 200 statewide that have been licensed by Cal-OSHA--emphasizes that handling the material--whether to remove it or seal it off--is best and most safely left to professionals. Do not do it yourself.

The material is dangerous because it is made up of tiny, microscopic fibers that can easily be inhaled and become lodged in the lungs, causing asbestosis--a debilitating respiratory ailment--and several types of cancer.

While there is a definite link between these diseases and workers who have had a high lifetime exposure to asbestos, little is known about the low-level effects of the material. Still, state and federal law operates on the principle that even very little is way too much.

For the typical county resident, the most immediate problem might be in your fireplace. Asbestos was widely used in cement logs for gas fireplaces and, worse, was the principal ingredient in the false ashes that were spread beneath the logs to make the display look realistic.

If you have a pre-1978 fireplace log set, have it tested for asbestos and, if it is present, hire an asbestos removal firm to clean out the fireplace.

Asbestos can be found in more than a dozen applications in the home. It was widely used to insulate heating ducts and in sprayed-on acoustic ceilings until barred in 1978 and was a popular ingredient in linoleum and vinyl floor tile, in wallboard joint compounds and patching plasters, in the tape used to seal the joints between heating ducts and heat registers, in roofing felt and tar, and in the gaskets of some stoves and furnaces.

In older homes, asbestos was also a commonly used material in the cloth-covered insulation on electrical wiring. It was used to insulate hot-water pipes and as a lining for wooden electrical fuse boxes.

Fortunately, relatively few homes in the county have old-fashioned steam or oil-fired basement heating systems, eliminating one common source of asbestos exposure: decaying gaskets in furnace doors and damaged insulation around pipes and boilers.

But asbestos was also commonly used to insulate overhead heating ducts. "Removing damaged duct insulation is the most common residential job we do," Reum said.

Before the 1950s, most heating ducts were insulated with an asbestos-lined paper. From the '50s through the early 1970s, air-cell insulation was almost universal in the heating industry--and most of it contained asbestos. In the mid-70s a new product, Alumasbestos, came into use.

In all of its forms, asbestos duct insulation can become friable, either through deterioration or from damage that rips the paper, plastic or aluminum outer coatings and exposes asbestos to the air.

Another common use for asbestos in the home was in ubiquitous spray-on acoustic, or "cottage cheese," ceilings. In most cases, those ceilings are safe--as long as the homeowner uses a little common sense.

Do not sweep or dust or paint them with devices that will knock the material loose, and do not vacuum up particles that fall down. Reum recommends using a moistened paper towel to pick up loose particles, which then should be sealed in a plastic bag for disposal. He said that an airless spray gun is the safest tool to use in painting such a ceiling.

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