Asbestos is a scary and extremely dangerous material that’s been linked to all kinds of health horrors, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis.

Not scared yet? How’s this: If your house was built before 1979, there’s a good chance that asbestos is lurking somewhere.

“Asbestos is often not on a homeowner’s radar, but it certainly should be,” says Brent Kynoch, managing director of the Environmental Information Association in Chevy Chase, MD. “There are a number of different construction materials in houses that are likely to contain asbestos. And all too often a homeowner finds out about them after they’ve exposed themselves and their families.”

The cost of removing asbestos

We wish we could tell you a cheap and fast way to remove asbestos from your home. We can’t. Removal should be attempted only by a professional asbestos abatement contractor trained in containing particles during demolition and disposal—services that could run $2,000 to $10,000, depending on the house, Kynoch says.

“It’s expensive, but mesothelioma is more expensive,” he says.

Left alone, asbestos fibers are trapped in products and don’t typically cause harm. But when surrounding material becomes damaged, or you disturb it during renovation—when you rip out floor tiles, for example, or tear down Sheetrock—then asbestos fibers can fly through the air and creep into lungs, causing illness decades down the road.

The best we can do is tell you where asbestos is likely to hide and how contractors remove it without spreading fibers that plant the seeds of destruction.

Where asbestos hides in your house

Asbestos is the term that describes six types of natural minerals: chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophyllite, and actinolite. It’s a substance that was once lauded for its heat resistance, tensile strength, and insulating properties. From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s until it was banned in some U.S. products in 1978, asbestos was found in everything from fireproofing to vinyl products to gaskets to cigarette filters.

In older homes, asbestos can still lurk in these items:

  • Insulation around pipes and boilers, and in attics and between walls
  • Decorative and acoustical plaster
  • Fire curtains and doors
  • Caulking, putties, and joint compounds
  • Adhesives, including flooring tile glue and even some brands of duct tape
  • Wallboard, siding, roofing shingles, and felt
  • Vinyl floor tiles

By 1978, various U.S. federal agencies had banned many, asbestos-containing products. But the material is not totally banned in the U.S. and can still be included in the manufacture of the following:

  • Cement corrugated wallboard
  • Roofing felt and coatings
  • Vinyl floor tile
  • Cement shingles

“The average homeowner believes that asbestos has been completely banned in the U.S. and would be surprised to know that they still can be contaminated and expose their families to these deadly fibers,” Kynoch says. “You’re not going to know that asbestos is present, because there’s no labeling requirements.”

How to find asbestos

The best way to know if your home—or one you plan to buy—has asbestos is to hire a special asbestos inspector. Home inspectors once routinely looked for asbestos, but most don’t do that any longer.

Asbestos inspectors will take samples for laboratory analysis, assess suspected material, and suggest needed corrections. The initial inspection, lab fees, and report cost $400 to $800 for an average 1,500-square-foot house, according to the White Lung Association, the Baltimore-based nonprofit that educates the public on the hazards of asbestos exposure.

Asbestos abatement

Professional asbestos abatement contractors know how to get rid of—or cover and seal off—the carcinogen without spreading the poison throughout your home. Here’s what they’ll do.

Enclose: Isolate asbestos material with a sturdy, airtight barrier to prevent damage.

Encapsulate: Spray asbestos material with a sealant that temporarily traps fibers.

Repair: Fix minor damaged areas, such as tears in pipe insulation.

Remove: This is the only permanent fix for your asbestos problem. Professionals will completely enclose the work area and vacuum it with a special asbestos vacuum. They’ll seal off ducts or vents and keep material wet during removal to avoid making particles airborne. Then they’ll dispose asbestos waste in approved asbestos landfill and according to EPA, state, and local regulations.

Here’s what you can do

Even though only a professional should touch anything with asbestos, here are a few do’s and don’ts from the EPA.

  • Minimize activity in—and keep kids away from—areas with damaged material you suspect contains asbestos.
  • Never dust, sweep, or vacuum asbestos-containing debris.
  • Instead of removing asbestos-containing flooring, it’s safer (and certainly easier) to install a new floor over it.
  • If you have more problems and concerns about asbestos, contact these state agencies that train and regulate asbestos professionals. For a list of licensed professionals in your area, contact your state or local health departments or EPA regional offices.

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