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What to Do If You Remodel and Find Asbestos : Health: Physician offers ideas on what it was used for, how to find it and how to deal with it.

March 04, 1990|Dr. KAREN PHILLIPS | Phillips is associate medical director of the Barlow Occupational Health Center and a clinical instructor at the USC School of Medicine.

Asbestos in the home is often a major concern to the homeowner who is considering remodeling or repair work. Some basic knowledge concerning where asbestos is likely to be found, the health effects of asbestos, how exposure occurs and methods to prevent it, help make this a less intimidating experience.

Asbestos is a group of fibrous minerals that occur naturally in underground rock. It has been used extensively because of its fire-resistant properties. It was used in many common household items before its adverse health effects were known.

It is found in such materials as vinyl floor tiles, vinyl sheet flooring and in the mastic or glue used to lay the flooring.

It is also found in patching compounds used on wall and ceiling joints, but was banned from this use in 1977. Some paint sold before 1978 contained asbestos to give it a textured look.

Spray-on acoustical ceilings prior to 1978 were also likely to contain asbestos to keep the material free-flowing through the sprayer. Asbestos was used in cement sheets, millboard and paper around wood-burning stoves to prevent nearby walls and floors from being damaged by heat or fire.

It was used as insulation material in older forced air and natural gas heating systems, around ducts and hot water pipes. Drywall, transit pipe and insulation found between walls are also suspect.

Roofing and siding shingles, and roofing felt were also manufactured using asbestos-containing materials. Older small appliances often contained small amounts of asbestos as protection from heating elements. In 1979, hand-held hair-dryers were recalled because of the asbestos fibers that were released during use.

Trying to determine what building materials contain asbestos can be difficult. Generally, asbestos-containing materials were not used in homes built after 1979.

However, many contractors may have had older materials on hand, purchased before the ban. Many times these were used until gone.

To determine if a material in a home contains asbestos, labels stating the contents of the product are sometimes helpful. Manufacturers may also be able to determine the components of a product based on its model number or age. Many times, however, no such information is available.

A good rule of thumb is to assume that any of these types of materials manufactured prior to 1978 has the potential for containing asbestos.

In some cases, having the suspect material analyzed by a professional to determine its asbestos content may be warranted. This may be desirable for large repairs or major renovations. Many environmental consulting firms are able to provide this service for a fee.

Asbestos is a health concern because of its potential to cause lung disease and cancer. Breathing in the asbestos fibers, some too small to see, can be a health hazard. Smokers who are heavily exposed to asbestos are 50 to 90 times more likely to develop lung cancer compared to nonsmoking, unexposed individuals.

The risk of contracting asbestos-related diseases increases in relation to the amount of one's exposure to asbestos. Although many asbestos-exposed workers such as insulation workers, shingle makers and shipyard workers have some form of asbestos-related disease, these are occupations that they were exposed eight to 10 hours a day to visible asbestos dust for many years, Smaller exposures have a smaller risk. Most people exposed to small amounts of asbestos do not develop any health problems.

Asbestos becomes a hazard when the fibers become airborne and can be inhaled. Any activity that stirs up asbestos fibers into the air creates a hazard. Once airborne, fibers can remain in the air for hours.

Asbestos is also a hazard if swallowed, possibly causing cancer of the stomach and colon. Asbestos dust may settle on food or items that can be touched and subsequently swallowed.

When asbestos-containing home materials such as vinyl tiles and acoustical sprayed-on ceilings are in good condition the potential for adverse health effects is minimal.

However, soft, easily crumbled materials in poor repair, such as crumbling ceilings or torn insulation, can be a potential hazard. Normal wind currents can blow across a damaged surface and release asbestos fibers into the air.

Activities such as sanding or cutting tiles, scraping floors or cutting into acoustical ceilings can release asbestos fibers into the air.

Once it has been determined that asbestos may be in a home building material, it is best to leave it alone. Materials in good condition generally are not a significant hazard. The best method for preventing exposure to vinyl tiles and flooring is to cover it with another type of flooring. Tearing out or ripping up asbestos flooring can create a hazard that previously did not exist.

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