Asbestos is a mineral fibre that can be positively identified only with a special type of microscope. There are several types of asbestos fibres. In the past, asbestos was mixed with various products to make them stronger and provide heat insulation and fire resistance. Licensed inspectors can supplement their knowledge with the information provided in this guide.
How can asbestos affect the health?
From many studies of people who were exposed to asbestos in factories and shipyards, it’s known that inhaling high levels of asbestos fibres can lead to an increased risk of lung cancer. This cancer comes in the forms of mesothelioma, which is cancer of the chest lining and the abdominal cavity. Another type of cancer, asbestosis, is a disease in which the lungs covered with the fibrous tissue.
The risk of mesothelioma and lung cancer increases with the number of fibres aspirated and even greater if you smoke. People who have diseases caused by asbestos do not show their symptoms until around 20 to 30 years after their first time of asbestos exposure.
Most people exposed to small amounts of asbestos, as we are all in our daily lives, do not develop those health problems. However, if disrupted, the asbestos material can break the asbestos fibres, which can be breathed into the lungs. The fibres will remain there for a long time, increasing the risk of the disease. Asbestos material that would easily crumble if handled, or that has been sawed, scraped, or polished to dust, is more likely to create a health hazard.
Most products made today do not contain asbestos. Those few products that still contain asbestos that can be inhaled are required to be labelled as such. However, until the 1970s, different kinds of building and insulation materials used in homes has been mixed with asbestos. Common materials that may have contained asbestos in the past, and conditions which may have released fibres, include:
- Steam pipes, boilers and insulated furnace ducts with an asbestos blanket or asbestos paper tape.
- Strong floor tiles (vinyl asbestos, asphalt and rubber), backing for vinyl floor coverings, and adhesives used to install tiles.
- The layer of cement, paperboard and paper used as insulation around boilers and wood-burning stoves.
- Door joints in boilers, wood and coal stoves.
- The soundproofing or decorative materials sprayed on the walls and ceilings.
- Patching and blending for walls and ceilings, and textured paints.
- Roofs, slats and coatings with asbestos cement.
- Artificial ashes and coals for sale for use in (gas) fireplaces, and other old home products, such as stove platforms, fireproof gloves, ironing board cover and certain hair dryers.
- Brake pads, claw linings and gaskets.
- Below are the places in the house where you can find the dangers of asbestos
- Some roofing and cladding boards that are made from asbestos cement.
- Houses built between 1930 and 1989 may have asbestos as their insulation.
- Asbestos may be present in textured paint and patch compounds used on the wall and roof joints.
- Artificial ashes and coals for sale for use in (gas) fireplaces may contain asbestos.
- Older products, such as stove platforms, may have some asbestos compounds.
- Walls and floors around wood-burning stoves can be protected with paper, cardboard or asbestos cement layers.
- Asbestos is found on some vinyl tiles and the backing on the vinyl siding layer and the adhesives.
- Steam pipes and hot water in older homes may be covered with asbestos material or covered with a blanket or asbestos tape.
- Oil and coal boilers and door gaskets may have asbestos insulation.
How to identify contaminated materials containing asbestos
You cannot recognise if a material contains asbestos or not just by observing it unless the material is labelled. If in uncertainty, treat the material as if it contained asbestos, or have it sampled and analysed by a licensed expert. A licensed assessor should take samples for analysis since he knows what to look for and because there may be an elevated health risk if the fibres are released. In fact, if performed correctly, taking samples can be more dangerous than leaving only the material. Taking samples yourself is not recommended. If you, however, choose to take the samples yourself, be careful not to release the asbestos fibres into the air or to yourself. A material that is in good condition, and will not be interrupted (for remodelling, for example) should be left undisturbed. Only damaged material or the one that will be interrupted should be sampled. Any person who takes samples of asbestos-containing materials should have as much information as possible about handling asbestos before taking samples and, at a minimum, should observe the following procedures:
- Ensure that no one is in the room after taking samples.
- Wear gloves or wash the hands after taking the samples.
- Turn off all heating or cooling systems to minimise the spread of the released fibres.
- Do not interrupt more material than it takes to take a small sample.
- Put a layer of plastic on the floor below the area to be sampled.
- Dampen the material using a fine mist of a few drops of detergent before collecting the sample. The water/detergent mist spray will reduce the release of asbestos fibres.
- Carefully cut a piece of the entire depth of the material using a small knife or other sharp objects. Place the small piece in a clean container (an empty 35-mm roll, glass or plastic bottle, or high-quality plastic bag with lock).
- Tightly seal the bag after the sample is inside.
- Carefully dispose of the plastic coating. Use a wet towel to clean any material on the outside of the container or around the area that was sampled. Dispose of the asbestos materials according to state and local procedures.
- Label the bag with an identification number and state when and where the sample was taken.
- Patch the damaged area that was sampled with a piece (as small as possible) of tape to prevent fibre release.
- Send the sample to an asbestos testing laboratory accredited by the NATA. Your state or local health department may also be able to help.