Up until the mid-1980s, many common building materials and components in use contained asbestos. It is relatively easy to disturb, even when performing trivial repairs. You could be putting yourself and your loved ones at risk and not even know it.

Asbestos, a fibrous material, was widely used in commercial and residential construction well into the 1980s. It was an economical means of fireproofing and insulating homes. It added strength and durability to heat duct systems and was also a wonderful soundproofing upgrade to ceilings. It even turned out that mixing it with cement created a nice low-cost alternative to metal pipes.

Do not disturb

Problems begin when repairs are needed in these homes. When an HVAC technician, for example, needs to replace a furnace filter or repair some ductwork, the asbestos insulation laying beneath becomes disturbed. When it is exposed to the air, the asbestos bits break apart into tiny, microscopic particles that remain suspended.

Healthy lungs are surrounded by a membrane known as the pulmonary mesothelium, which is a slippery surface around the lung cavities and surrounding chest wall. As the airborne asbestos travels down the respiratory tract upon inhalation, it sticks to the mesothelium on the exterior of the lungs and chest wall. In small doses, this is not life-threatening. However, if one is exposed to this regularly it can cause big problems.

A slippery slope

Normal mesothelial cells produce a complex of proteins that make up the slippery membrane coating most of the body’s major organs. If the one surrounding the lungs and chest wall becomes repeatedly damaged from airborne asbestos exposure, its cells will stop producing the healthy slippery membrane proteins, and start producing alternate proteins that are found in malignant tumors. The cells that produce these alternate proteins, called rogue cells, form the basis for the development of mesothelioma – cancer of the mesothelial membrane.

Unfortunately, this type of cancer is often highly aggressive. Symptoms do not usually present until it is too late to intervene surgically. Because it is usually fatal, lawsuits brought on by the disease often result in substantive payouts to plaintiffs.

The scope of the problem

Various health and safety regulators have attempted to estimate the true prevalence of asbestos in buildings. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) compiled a sample list of possible asbestos-containing materials that included everything from structural components like joint compounds, to floor and ceiling tiles, and even carpet. This is consistent with the Canadian province of Ontario’s Ministry of Labor, Training and Skills Development 2011 estimate that there are as many as 3,000 products still in use today that contain asbestos.

This may seem hard to believe – if most of these products were banned from use by the mid-1980s, how could there possibly be so much of them still out there? The great difficulty with this is that once a building is constructed, it is difficult to do a recall on its core components. Even if there were some kind of civil engineering miracle that would make it structurally and economically viable to do so, the real risk would be one of exposure to all of the workers as they remove the affected materials. It is a job for professional remediators, not the average construction worker.

Another dimension to all of this is regulations. At the time of manufacture and sale of many asbestos-containing products designed for homes, there were fewer regulations that required manufacturers to disclose all of the different materials that went into each product, let alone a breakdown of how much. What has resulted is an outcome of chaos and uncertainty, because it is difficult to know exactly how much asbestos might be in a given building. One common reason why demolition is posed as an alternative to extensive remodeling is because of concerns about asbestos.

Better to be safe than sorry

If you suspect that you might be living or working in a structure that contains asbestos, a good first step is to have air and fiber samples tested at a certified asbestos lab. Professional remediation companies will work with you to determine the extent of remediation necessary – is it just in your HVAC ducts, or in your ceiling too? Once these questions are answered, they will formulate a remediation plan.

To ensure that the remediation is performed safely, it is important to choose someone who adheres to all the best practices and rules set out by the EPA and OHSA. This means that the removal is performed by trained technicians, with the use of containment structures and negative air machines to keep the air clean, and the use of devices to constantly measure air contamination levels in and outside the compartments. Then, the asbestos is packed in air-tight containers and brought to a designated site for special disposal.

Don’t take chances. If your home or building is older, deal with the possibility of asbestos promptly. If someone you love starts experiencing chest pain, shortness of breath, trouble swallowing, and swelling in the face and arms and the biopsy comes back positive, it could be too late. Avoiding the tragedy altogether by calling the professionals early to check for and dispose of asbestos is always money well spent.

Alliance Environmental has been performing asbestos abatement projects for almost 26 years. From residential ductwork removal to large full-scale commercial abatement, the company is a leader in asbestos abatement across California, Arizona, and Nevada. Schedule a free estimate today.