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ASBESTOS: What is Asbestos?

   Asbestos is a fibrous mineral which poses many health hazards, foremost among being the danger of lung ailments and specific types of cancer. It has certain properties such as heat and fire resistance that lends itself to many applications.
   For many years, it was used as an insulator in many commonly used products, such as pipe insulation, brake pad linings, ironing board covers, and hundreds of other products. Unfortunately, the health hazards of asbestos far outweigh it's benefits.

   This page will educate you about asbestos as it relates to a home inspection and the home buying process. Certainly, the presence of asbestos in a home can sour a real estate deal. But as you'll see, there are things that a home owner (and home buyer) can do to protect themselves from asbestos exposure. First, let's look at where asbestos can be found in a home.

ASBESTOS: Where was it used?

   Simply put, everywhere. Asbestos was used as an insulator because of it's heat resistance and high tensile strength. Since there are so many uses for a material with these properties, it was used in everything from acoustical insulation to heat resistant paints to textiles.    Some of these applications lend themselves to limited asbestos exposure, and some pose a huge risk. Today, very few materials are manufactured using asbestos, and those that do are required to be clearly labeled.

Uses for asbestos include:
- automobile clutches
- transmission components
- heat resistant paints and coatingsPhoto of possible asbestos pipe covering
- roofing materials
- floor tiles
- ceiling tiles
- papers used for insulation
- cement products
- pipe insulation
- door gaskets for stoves and heating appliances
- fireproofing products

What makes asbestos dangerous?

   The primary risk related to asbestos is due to it's very composition. Asbestos is composed of tiny fibers which may become airborne and lodge in the lungs. Some products that use asbestos pose a limited risk because the fibers are isolated in other materials (such as asbestos floor tiles) and are less likely to become airborne where they can find their way into the lungs. Products like pipe insulation pose a greater risk because the asbestos fibers in insulation are more FRIABLE - meaning that the fibers are more likely to break off and become airborne.

Asbestos exposure can lead to several serious illnesses:

Asbestosis - this ailment causes lung tissue to become scarred, making it difficult to breathe. The scarring prevents oxygen from getting into the blood. Asbestosis is characterized by a dry cough and a labored, crackling sound during inhalation, accompanied by shortness of breath.

Mesothelioma - a form of cancer that affects the mucous membranes in the lungs, heart, chest, and abdominal linings. Mesothelioma is almost always caused by asbestos exposure, and may take many years after exposure for symptoms to develop. Look here for more mesothelioma information.

Lung Cancer - by far, the most common ailment associated with asbestos exposure. Symptoms include shortness of breath, a change in the breathing "rhythm", persistent cough, and chest pains. Anemia often accompanies these other symptoms. Those who work (or worked) in industries that manufactured or extracted products containing asbestos, such as the construction and mining industries, are at greater risk of lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis than the general population.

Asbestos in the Home

   Naturally, this page revolves around asbestos as it relates to home inspections. If a home inspector finds asbestos in a home that you are buying, it is NOT NECESSARILY a deal-breaker.
   Asbestos comes in many forms, and as I mentioned, some applications are more hazardous than others. For instance, asbestos was used in floor tiles (usually the 9-inch size) because of it's durability and it's insulating properties. Another use for asbestos was as a siding material for the exterior of homes. Both of these uses poses a much lesser risk than a material like asbestos pipe insulation, because it is less likely to find it's way into the air, and subsequently, the lungs. So if your home inspector notes that the floor tile in the foyer is the 9-inch variety (the size of tile that commonly contained asbestos), don't panic.
   A home inspector may find asbestos in other areas of the home as well: door gaskets on stoves and heating appliances, fireproof materials on hearths and near fireplaces, and soundproofing paper between certain areas of the home, such as between the garage and the living space.
   In some cases, it may be wise to insist upon removal of the asbestos-containing material before you purchase a home, since removal costs can be quite high. Of course, this depends on what type of material is present. You wouldn't want to dismiss the presence of asbestos-containing material and buy the home, only to find that it's removal would cost several thousand dollars.
   Asbestos-containing material can sometimes be isolated or encapsulated to minimize the risk of exposure without removal.
   As a matter of personal opinion, floor tiles containing asbestos need not be removed,photo of 9" floor tiles which may contain asbestos since the asbestos fibers in the tiles are not likely to become airborne. The same with siding which contains asbestos: it is outdoors, which automatically limits exposure. If the siding or floor tiles are in poor condition - cracked, fraying, disintegrating - then by all means, insist upon removal or replacement before you move in.

Asbestos Pipe Insulation

   If the home inspector finds something like pipe insulation that contains asbestos, ask the inspector to show you the material so that you know WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE, first of all.
   Then try to determine the condition of the material - is it in good condition? Is it friable? Is it encapsulated or isolated so that it isn't likely to become airborne? If it is located in an area where it may be disturbed (i.e. a basement laundry area where someone could bump their head on the pipe insulation, disturbing the asbestos), then consider removal or encapsulation.
   In this case, ask your home inspector to note the presence (and condition) of the asbestos-containing material in the home inspection report, and present the report to your real estate agent. Your agent may be able to come to an agreement with the seller that is acceptable to everyone.
   If you feel that the presence of asbestos-containing material presents an imminent risk to health, and you would still like to purchase the home, then work with your agent, or the seller directly, to resolve the situation. If the seller refuses to cover the cost of removal, then ask if the seller might consider covering the cost to encapsulate or isolate the asbestos-containing material.

Other Asbestos Materials in the Home

   Another use for asbestos was door gaskets for boilers, stoves, and heating appliances. Since asbestos is no longer manufactured for these purposes, it is rather unlikely that your home inspector will find asbestos here, due to the service life of door gaskets and heating units.
   If your inspector finds a stove gasket that may contain asbestos, it is best to have it removed and replaced with a gasket that doesn't contain asbestos. The reason is simple: wood stoves require opening to fill and clean the stove, and this may disturb the asbestos gasket and cause asbestos fibers to become airborne.
   Same thing with gaskets on boilers and other heating appliances: insist upon removal and replacement. Periodic servicing of the boiler will disturb the asbestos and put fibers in the air - and you don't need asbestos fibers entering the heating ducts and blowing into the living space. Replacement is inexpensive, and should not be cause for extensive negotiation with the home seller.

   In some older homes, asbestos was used as a fireproofing material, usually between anPhoto of FRIABLE asbestos pipe insulation attached garage and the living space. It was sometimes incorporated into a fibrous "paper" that was enclosed in the wall separating the garage from the main home.
   This paper was designed to give the occupants a few extra minutes before a fire in the garage engulfed the main living area of the home. Modern building codes stipulate that the garage and living space be separated by a firewall, and 5/8" drywall is usually used for this purpose.

   A home inspector may not even discover this material, since it is often enclosed in the wall and hidden from view, with code-approved drywall applied over the wall studs.  If the asbestos-paper is visible, it should be enclosed with plywood to limit the occupant's exposure.

Asbestos Summary

   There are no hard-and-fast rules that apply to buying or selling a home that has asbestos-containing materials. The buyer should evaluate the situation on a case-by-case basis, depending upon the material, it's application (use), it's condition, and the likelihood of exposure to airborne asbestos fibers.   

   If you feel that you or your family will be at risk of asbestos exposure in your new home, then negotiations with the seller are in order.  If the seller agrees, an escrow account can be set up to cover the cost of asbestos removal or encapsulation if a contingency date is already set for your real estate transaction.

   It is important to REALISTICALLY evaluate your risk of exposure to airborne asbestos fibers from any asbestos materials that may be present in the home. In the event that you are unsure of the risk that asbestos presents in a home that you are purchasing, consider getting an assessment from a consultation firm, AND a quote from an asbestos-removal specialist. This approach eliminates a conflict of interest: if you get an assessment and a quote for the cost of removal from the same firm, you may be taken for an expensive ride.

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