Avoiding Asbestos Exposure in Old Buildings and Houses

Working in and around homes and buildings constructed prior to 1980—and in some cases, after this date—presents a risk of asbestos exposure for homeowners and professional tradespeople. The risk, however, can be greatly reduced by knowing where asbestos-containing materials are commonly found and taking precautions.

Asbestos Products
It's been estimated that 3,000 different types of commercial products contain asbestos. The first U.S. patent for asbestos, issued in 1828, was for steam engine insulating material. During and after World War II, asbestos was wildly popular as an additive to textiles, building materials, and machine parts. By 1970, asbestos use had expanded to thousands of products and in 1973, U.S. asbestos consumption hit an all-time high of nearly 1 million tons.

Limit of asbestos bans began to take effect in 1973 and continued through 1977. After this time, many companies stopped using asbestos in their products. Asbestos, however, has never been completely banned in the United States. Asbestos is still used in some building materials.

Asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) were used to fireproof, insulate, soundproof, and decorate. Due to the former prevalence of ACMs in construction projects, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration presumes that certain materials installed prior to 1981 contain asbestos. They include:

  • Thermal system insulation
  • Roofing and siding shingles
  • Vinyl floor tiles
  • Plaster, cement, caulk, putty, and joint compounds
  • Ceiling tiles
  • Paints and spray-on coatings
  • Pipe wrapping

These ACMs, found in both commercial and residential settings, are just the tip of the asbestos iceberg. The mineral fiber is also found in some places you might not expect, such as:

  • Light fixture backing
  • Electrical equipment and wiring
  • Wood stove heat reflectors
  • Artificial fireplace logs
  • Door covers and gaskets on HVAC units
  • Automotive brakes and transmission components
  • Fuse box paneling

Protection from Asbestos
OSHA has very strict regulations in place for workers who encounter occupational asbestos. Construction tradespeople engaged in the construction, alteration, repair, maintenance, or renovation of structures with known asbestos, for example, must wear proper respiratory protection and use special HEPA vacuums for cleanup work. Employers must ensure that no workers are exposed to asbestos, and in some situations, asbestos training for workers is required. OSHA takes such measures very seriously and hands out steep fines for violations.

For homeowners, the best way to avoid asbestos exposure is to leave suspected ACMs alone. Unlike professional tradespeople, homeowners aren't afforded the type of health protections that OSHA oversees. While it's possible to obtain OSHA-approved respiratory protection and a HEPA vacuum, this equipment alone won't prevent asbestos exposure. In fact, trying to remove ACMs without professional assistance could create a greater exposure risk for household members.

Lawsuits Over Asbestos Exposure
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was not established until 1970. A year later, OSHA was formed. But by this time, U.S. asbestos use had reached its zenith, and millions of people already had been exposed to asbestos in the preceding decades. Their exposure was the result of a lack of public awareness of asbestos hazards, but this was the fault of private asbestos companies that by the 1970s had known for more than half a century the deadly hazards of asbestos but failed to inform employers and workers. Who knows how many lives could have been saved if asbestos companies had warned the public that asbestos was carcinogenic?

Victims of the asbestos industry are not without recourse. Through a lawsuit, they can hold asbestos companies financially responsible for their medical bills and other losses. Thousands of asbestos lawsuits have been filed already.

Joseph W. Belluck is a founding partner of Belluck & Fox who has spent his entire legal career representing injured consumers and workers. To learn more, visit the website of Belluck & Fox, a New York mesothelioma law firm.

Posted by Joseph W. Belluck on Mar 11, 2015

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