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Asbestos may be in your home: how to avoid possible health risks

If your home was built before about 1996, it could very well have components that contain asbestos. Shocked? It’s true. The Environmental Protection Agency started a phased ban of asbestos-containing products used in residential construction in 1989, but the final phase wasn’t even intended to be completed until 1996.

Is your family at risk for developing illnesses like mesothelioma or asbestos lung cancer from exposure to asbestos from these products? The truth is, we don’t know. Under ordinary circumstances, the danger is considered quite low -- but there is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos.

One of the worst things you can do, however, is to identify the asbestos-containing products in your home and start ripping them out. Left alone, the tiny asbestos fibers that cause mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses into the air, where people can breathe them. Disturbing asbestos during demolition or remodeling is when you and your family are at the greatest risk. Asbestos-containing products must be removed by a trained, licensed asbestos mitigation contractor.

Leaving these products alone is not enough, however. If you’re unaware of what you’re dealing with, you could easily sand, scrape or drill holes into asbestos-laden materials without realizing it. What kinds of household materials may contain asbestos? Common examples include:

  • Vinyl flooring and floor-leveling compound.
  • Some brick and cement-block mortar.
  • Duct insulation in some heating and air conditioning systems.
  • Hot-water pipe and boiler insulation, particularly in homes built between 1920 and 1972.
  • Wall and ceiling insulation in homes built or remodeled between 1945 and 1978.
  • Some older roofing, shingles and siding.
  • Certain drywall or sheetrock joint compounds and tape.
  • Spray-ceiling cover that looks like cottage cheese with some irregular soft surfaces.

Unfortunately, a visual inspection is not enough to identify materials that contain asbestos -- they must be laboratory tested. However, the EPA recommends leaving existing materials that are in good condition in place. If the material is damaged or could be disturbed by ordinary activities or during remodeling, you or your contractor should have it tested.

If you think you may have asbestos-containing products in your home, don’t poke around. Contact a certified asbestos consultant, your state or local health department, or the asbestos coordinator in your EPA regional office. Illinois is in Region 5 of the EPA, and the asbestos coordinator can be reached at 312-886-6810.

Source: Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, "Prevention: Asbestos Exposure Can Be Hazardous to Your Health!" 2013

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