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In the house: Beware of Asbestos. It’s the Anti-Fire Hazard

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Posted on: December 14, 2023

 By Matt Menke

Matt Menke lives in College Park and is a licensed Maryland home inspector.

Fires remain one of the biggest threats to any home. So, imagine all the advantages if we had a lightweight, inexpensive, all-natural mineral that could easily be formed into fireproof, sound-absorbing, energy-efficient building materials. We do, it’s called asbestos, a common silicate compound. Unlike earlier insulating materials such as seaweed, hay, horsehair or shredded newspapers, the long, thin crystal fibers of asbestos don’t burn at normal temperatures, dissolve in water, or attract insects or vermin. 

In the 1880s, asbestos quickly became the material of choice for fireproofing, and the economies of mass production drove it into a wide range of building materials, including shingles, siding, insulation, floor tile, wire coatings and wall paneling. A handyman could go to the store and buy a bucket of it to blend into plaster or paint. 

Unfortunately, asbestos offers a deadly lesson in the law of unintended consequences.  By 1906, researchers in England suspected that breathing in asbestos fibers caused terrible lung damage. By the 1930s, the Johns Manville company, along with other manufacturers of asbestos products, had clear evidence confirming its dangers. However,  the risks were deliberately concealed from workers and customers, while asbestos products continued to be used in millions of homes, schools and other buildings.

We now know that long-term exposure to asbestos fibers causes asbestosis, a chronic lung disease, along with lung cancer and a number of other cancers. When the cover-up was exposed, the resulting wave of lawsuits against asbestos companies led to the establishment of victim compensation funds and the widespread efforts to abate the installed materials. In 1989, the EPA began to set rules for the safe use of asbestos.

Fast forward to today. There is still a lot of old asbestos in homes in the form of poured-in vermiculite insulation, floor or ceiling tiles, and pipe insulation, so our job is to identify it and make wise decisions about how to address it. The good news is that asbestos is only dangerous when it is broken or crumbling into dust that can be inhaled. The people most at risk are construction workers who encounter it on a regular basis. Homeowners face the greatest danger when remodeling a home that contains  asbestos products.

The bad news is that products containing asbestos are not always easy to identify. The common myth that 9-inch floor tiles contain asbestos, but 12-inch floor tiles don’t, is simply false.  Testing is the only way to be sure. There are professionals who take and test samples, but homeowners can legally collect their own samples and pay  a local lab to determine if asbestos is present, and in what concentration.

 It’s expensive to dispose of products containing asbestos because they can’t be taken to most landfills. So, in many cases, the best thing to do is to leave them in place and cover or encapsulate them to make sure they don’t fall apart and produce airborne fibers. Many homes have asbestos floor tiles, but they’re safe when they’re clear-coated or protected by a rug or carpet.  It’s quite common to have asbestos insulation on pipes connected to boilers or hot water heaters, but an owner or  contractor can wrap the insulation in plastic or fiberglass. Asbestos siding that’s in good condition can be sealed with paint and last  for many more decades.

 The Maryland Department of the Environment’s website ( tinyurl.com/ydsxx24u.) offers comprehensive information about asbestos, including sources for testing and best practices  for homeowners and contractors.  Unlike way back in 1906 when people were just discovering the dangers of asbestos, today there are a lot of resources and information to make smarter choices.

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