Asbestos in the Home
Prior to the mid-1970s, asbestos was a commonly-used mineral found in thousands of consumer products and building materials throughout the home. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 30 million tons of asbestos was used between 1900 and 1980, some of which is still in materials and products people may come into contact with today. Prolonged or extensive exposure to asbestos has been directly linked to several aggressive and difficult to treat diseases, including malignant mesothelioma.
Unfortunately, home exposure doesn’t always occur during renovation projects and can be related to damage sustained during a fire or natural disaster, flooding or simply old age. Household items like crock pots and hair dryers can be just as dangerous, releasing fibers as they age and wear out. According to one study, an estimated 20% of all mesothelioma diagnoses in industrialized countries happen outside of the workplace.
Where to Find Asbestos in the Home
From the 1930s until the 1970s, asbestos was included in building materials because of its durability and high resistance to heat and chemicals. As a result, asbestos was widely used during home construction, especially in places where materials were likely to come into contact with heat for a prolonged period of time. It was also used as an insulator in electrical products, as siding and even as an acoustic material used for soundproofing. Various consumer products around the home, like hair dryers and crock pots, were also sometimes made with asbestos for heat resistance.
- Asbestos rope/sheets
- Ceiling tiles
- Cement roofing
- Cement sheets
- Duct/pipe insulation
- Roof shingles/felt
- Vermiculite attic insulation
- Vinyl floor tiles
It is difficult to identify whether or not a material contains asbestos just by looking at it, but there are clues that may hint toward the presence of the mineral in certain products. For example, the older a home is, the more likely it is that asbestos materials were used during its construction. While newer homes are less likely to contain asbestos products, homes built before 1980 should be assumed to contain the toxin somewhere. Some materials, including textured paint used on walls and ceilings, once contained the mineral and should be handled with care. In other cases, when asbestos is added to certain products like shingles, roofing materials or pipe insulation, it can cause dimpling or craters in the material’s surface.
If there are any spare boxes of vinyl floor tiles stowed away for future repairs, a stamp on the back of the tiles or the box itself will determine the possible presence of asbestos. However, in most situations it is best to assume that any flooring or material installed prior to 1980 contains the mineral and should be treated with caution.
Some products, like vermiculite attic insulation, have well-documented ties to asbestos contamination. The EPA suggests that up to 70% of vermiculite mined from Libby, Montana between 1919 and 1990 may have been contaminated with the mineral. Homeowners with vermiculite insulation should always assume it contains asbestos and take appropriate measures to avoid unnecessary exposure.
While visual clues can suggest the presence of asbestos in the home, it is not a fool-proof method to identify asbestos. For example, even though some vinyl floor tiles have a higher likelihood of containing the mineral, these products came in a variety of shapes and sizes, and not all of them used asbestos in their production. The only definitive way to determine whether or not a questionable product contains asbestos is to have a professional test for it. In the meantime, it’s best to limit damage and avoid handling those materials until the tests are complete.
Limiting Exposure at Home
It is important to keep in mind that exposure can occur anytime asbestos-containing materials are damaged or disturbed. Today, the risk of asbestos exposure is a growing concern because of the number of older homes undergoing renovations and other remodeling projects. A licensed professional should be called to perform testing if the house has crumbling or clearly damaged materials in it, or if any type of remodeling or renovations will be taking place. By doing this, it allows the homeowner to take appropriate action and have the materials safely removed.
In general, asbestos material is considered safe when it is in good condition and shows no signs of damage. If the material is damaged or worn, a professional may suggest either asbestos abatement or encapsulating the product with a coating meant to prevent fibers from becoming airborne.
At no point should a homeowner attempt to perform asbestos removal on their own. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. Improper handling of the material could potentially release fibers into the air and create a health hazard for others in the area.
Federal Asbestos Regulations
Federal regulations have reduced the amount of asbestos used in construction and manufacturing from more than 800,000 tons in 1973 to only a few hundred tons today, but the toxic chemical is still not banned in the United States. Despite decreased use, people are still coming into contact with items that contain asbestos, either while on the job or at home. It is imperative for homeowners to understand where asbestos-containing materials are most likely to be found, what common products may contain the mineral and how those who may come into contact with asbestos can protect themselves.
The EPA’s National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) help protect air quality and reduce health hazards presented by a number of contaminants like asbestos. These standards address a variety of issues, including demolitions, renovations and installations, and ensure that all work is done safely. NESHAP also covers asbestos waste transportation and disposal, while ensuring landfills are properly equipped and qualified to receive those materials. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) also has several bans in place related to certain asbestos-containing materials such as artificial ashes and embers found in fireplaces, along with wall patching compounds.
Regulations like these and many others are meant to reduce asbestos exposure inside and outside the home. By banning and limiting certain applications of the mineral, it limits the amount of exposure future generations may experience. Federal agencies, including the EPA, OSHA and the CPSC work together to ensure all asbestos removed from homes and businesses is carefully maintained and disposed of without causing additional opportunities for exposure.
Author: Tara Strand
Senior Content WriterRead about Tara
Reviewer: Jennifer R. Lucarelli
Lawyer for Mesothelioma Victims and Their FamiliesRead about Jennifer
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Asbestos In The Home.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Toxicology Program. Report on Carcinogens, Fourteenth Edition. November 2016.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Asbestos Fact Book. February 1985.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Asbestos National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP). Updated August 2018.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Protect Your Family from Asbestos-Contaminated Vermiculite Insulation. Updated December 2016.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. U.S. Federal Bans on Asbestos. Updated August 2018.
U.S. Geological Survey. Asbestos. January 2018.