High Cost of Asbestos Abatement Leaves Lower Income Communities at Risk

Asbestos abatement is an important aspect of preventing asbestos-related diseases. As most of the asbestos in the United States today can be found in legacy uses, especially in older buildings and homes, removing the toxin can greatly limit exposure for families living in these homes or workers in older buildings.

In the 1970s, reports show the United States consumed more than 800,000 tons of asbestos in just one year, which could be found in construction of these older buildings as well as many products. With such heavy past use, thousands of buildings, homes, and schools throughout the nation still contain asbestos. In the asbestos scoping document from the summer, the EPA reported that over 25.6 million pounds of friable asbestos waste were removed and disposed of just in 2015, and the amount of asbestos waste has been increasing each year. But there is still a long way to go to remove all past uses of the toxin.

Though asbestos is not considered a risk as long as the materials are undisturbed and in good condition, any damage to the materials--including general aging, construction or renovation, or even damage from storms--can lead to the release of asbestos fibers into the air. Exposure like this can develop into a number of serious health risks over time, including mesothelioma.

While abatement can help protect families, it is not always an accessible solution. Asbestos abatement can be quite expensive, and a cost that many lower or middle-income families cannot easily afford.

The Costs of Asbestos Abatement

On average, it’s estimated asbestos abatement costs about $1,800 across the nation, though this will largely depend on the amount of asbestos being removed and the square footage of the area or areas being taken care of. Lead abatement is estimated to be in a similar price range, with a national average of about $2,000. Though the average cost of lead abatement is marginally more than asbestos removal, homeowners have more options and hope of receiving a grant to assist in the removal of the toxin.

Asbestos abatement, however, does not have many financial options to help cut or cover the high costs. On a federal level, the average homeowner will have a difficult time receiving any funds. Though the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offers grants through their Health Homes program, the money is only available for nonprofits, businesses, schools, and government buildings. Some states may have programs available to help cover the cost or make up the difference with tax credits, but may still not be enough help for the average homeowner or landlord.

On the other hand, HUD has developed a similar program for lead abatement that actually benefits private homeowners, called the Lead-Based Paint and Lead Hazard Reduction Demonstration Grant Programs. Both programs allow for privately owned housing, whether for owner occupants or rental, that fit certain eligibility to receive help paying for the identification and control of lead. Other agencies, like the Centers for Disease Control, also have their own programs that help families and businesses remove lead in a cost-efficient manner.

Lead has been linked to a variety of health problems, especially lead poisoning in children. It’s important for this toxin to be taken out of the home to avoid these risks, but asbestos presents serious health risks as well. Though asbestos is technically considered safe when left alone and in good shape, it’s only natural for older homes that contain asbestos materials to become more worn over time. Bad weather, old age, or the need to renovate or rebuild areas of the home can all result in exposing dangerous asbestos fibers or other toxins.

In these instances, families or landlords will need to have the asbestos encapsulated or removed to prevent potential exposure putting them and any workers at risk. But even though it’s the safest choice to bring in asbestos professionals, the cost can be offputting.

Low Income Communities Facing More Exposure

The costs of abatement can be especially difficult for lower income households to bear. Reports have shown for many years that lower income communities typically face a wider array of health risks and environmental issues than those in more affluent areas, including asbestos and lead exposure.

A study from the Urban Institute found that people with lower incomes reported poorer overall health and a higher risk of disease, as well as a shorter life expectancy compared to higher income groups. These differences in health can be attributed to a number of factors including worse or no health insurance, inadequate housing, and more environmental pollution of indoor and outdoor air. The presence of lead paint or asbestos hidden in insulation or other areas of the home can be a huge risk for these communities.

The cost, however, will hold many residents and landlords back from moving forward with asbestos or lead abatement without financial assistance. In some cases, it may lead to more people deciding to try to tackle the problem themselves and move forward with renovations or repairs without the help of a professional first.

Though a quick fix like that might save money, it can also cause damage to these toxins and thus bring about serious health risks for anyone in the home or building. Asbestos fibers are invisible, making it even easier for the toxin to fill the air without notice. Many don’t realize they were ever exposed to asbestos until decades later when they finally start to notice symptoms.

Tackling serious toxins like lead or asbestos in a DIY style removal or ignoring the problems all together put these lower income communities seriously at risk.

A Need for Progress

Even as the EPA investigates asbestos with the hope of a potential ban in the future, these old uses of asbestos will remain for many years until action is taken to remove the toxin. Without the help of grants or other funding options, many Americans won’t be able to easily afford abatement on their own.

Policymakers need to recognize the need for better programs to make taking care of this health risk more accessible. Removing the danger now can prevent more needless deaths from the toxin decades in the future. Though some progress is being made with the EPA’s evaluations of asbestos and other chemicals, we need to do more now to start getting rid of the problem on an ongoing basis, rather than waiting for more strict regulations to force change upon us.