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Tips for Avoiding Asbestos During Home Renovations

Since its debut in 1994, HGTV has changed the way Americans think about home renovations. From elaborate remodels to do-it-yourself decorating, homeowners turn to the latest home shows for inspiration and education, and rehabbing older homes is a growing trend. Beneath the surface lurks a hidden danger that poses a serious health threat, and that is asbestos. 

What is asbestos? 

It is a natural fiber that has been used for thousands of years. Valued for its resistance to fire, affordability, and longevity, it became popular in the United States around the turn of the 20th century and reached its peak during World War II. Although there are records of slaves in ancient Greece becoming ill after mining the mineral, it took scientists much longer to prove its hazards. In the 1970s, the U.S. passed laws to restrict its use, but some countries still use it in products they export. Homes built before 1980 are likely to have questionable products. 

The fibers can cause several illnesses, but the most serious is mesothelioma, a rare cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart. It is most common in the lungs, and there is no cure. It takes 20 years or longer to develop, and people who have the illness may not even realize they have been exposed to the fibers. The first wave of victims included military veterans, followed by a second wave of construction workers. The third wave includes families who lived in homes during renovations or those who did the renovations themselves. 

Which products are dangerous? 

Many older homes have siding or roofing shingles that contain the toxin, and houses dating between 1930 and 1950 may have it in the insulation. Until 1977, manufacturers used it in products like textured paint, popcorn ceilings and compounds used for patching joints. 

As long as the product is not broken or disturbed, it is usually safe, If it is in decay or disrupted by repairs, the fibers enter the air and become dangerous. Certified inspectors can test particles to see if they contain the toxin. If so, homeowners need to follow safety rules and procedures when doing home improvement projects.

What are safe ways of recycling?

The good news is that trained professionals can safely dispose of the mineral. They can even recycle it by using a new thermal process that converts it into silicate glass. Manufacturers then use the glass to make stone or ceramic products. The Environmental Protection Agency has information about everything from identifying the product to safely removing and recycling it. 

What steps should homeowners follow?
Homeowners can keep their families safe by following a few simple rules:

  • Leave the substance alone if it is intact.
  • Re-wrap or cover if it is slightly damaged.
  • Work with a certified handler.
  • Follow federal and local regulations.
  • Never sweep, vacuum or dust fibers.

Are homeowners with a one-time exposure at risk?

The American Cancer Society says people who are exposed at an early age, in large amounts or for a long period of time are at highest risk, but not everyone who is exposed gets a related illness. Factors like genetics or prior radiation treatment may also increase susceptibility to mesothelioma. Although cancer may not show up for as long as 50 years, the risk stays the same after exposure and lasts a lifetime.

Anyone who does a home improvement project should first find out if the building contains toxic substances. If toxins are present, only certified professionals have the resources and skills to remove them safely. While the renovation is in process, residents should avoid the home or use recommended precautions to avoid exposure to airborne fibers. 

No amount of the substance is safe, and its tiny fibers can linger in the air for days before embedding themselves in the lungs. It will be decades before the first generation of home enthusiasts find out if they have fallen prey to asbestos, but they can reduce the odds by being informed and following safety guidelines.


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