Let Certified Experts Juggle Asbestos


This column is called “Do-It-Yourself,” but this time it is about something you shouldn’t try on your own: removal of asbestos from the home.

Exposure to the one-time miracle mineral, used for lightweight fireproofing and insulation, is now known to cause serious health problems.

And if you live in a home built before 1978--when asbestos was prohibited--it’s likely that asbestos-containing materials are present.


That does not mean you should tear your house down, or even that you are being exposed to anything harmful. In many cases, the asbestos-containing products are perfectly safe and should be left alone. They create problems only if damaged or disturbed.

But because Orange County homeowners are great remodelers, you should know just where asbestos is likely to be found--and what the rules are regarding its safe handling.

Knocking down walls, removing ceilings, ripping up linoleum or asbestos tile flooring and extending heating ducts all can create asbestos-exposure dangers.

Material containing asbestos is most dangerous when in a friable state--a broken, crumbled or pulverized condition in which asbestos-laden dust is released.

No one is now legally responsible for checking for the presence of asbestos before a project begins. But as of Jan. 1, a new South Coast Air Quality Management District rule will require professional contractors to test for the presence of asbestos before starting demolition or remodeling work and to ensure that workers and others are not exposed to asbestos during the project.

Peter Reum of Enkay Engineering, a Santa Ana-based, asbestos-removal contractor--one of fewer than 200 statewide that have been licensed by Cal-OSHA--emphasizes that handling the material--whether to remove it or seal it off--is best and most safely left to professionals. Do not do it yourself.


The material is dangerous because it is made up of tiny, microscopic fibers that can easily be inhaled and become lodged in the lungs, causing asbestosis--a debilitating respiratory ailment--and several types of cancer.

While there is a definite link between these diseases and workers who have had a high lifetime exposure to asbestos, little is known about the low-level effects of the material. Still, state and federal law operates on the principle that even very little is way too much.

For the typical county resident, the most immediate problem might be in your fireplace. Asbestos was widely used in cement logs for gas fireplaces and, worse, was the principal ingredient in the false ashes that were spread beneath the logs to make the display look realistic.

If you have a pre-1978 fireplace log set, have it tested for asbestos and, if it is present, hire an asbestos removal firm to clean out the fireplace.

Asbestos can be found in more than a dozen applications in the home. It was widely used to insulate heating ducts and in sprayed-on acoustic ceilings until barred in 1978 and was a popular ingredient in linoleum and vinyl floor tile, in wallboard joint compounds and patching plasters, in the tape used to seal the joints between heating ducts and heat registers, in roofing felt and tar, and in the gaskets of some stoves and furnaces.

In older homes, asbestos was also a commonly used material in the cloth-covered insulation on electrical wiring. It was used to insulate hot-water pipes and as a lining for wooden electrical fuse boxes.

Fortunately, relatively few homes in the county have old-fashioned steam or oil-fired basement heating systems, eliminating one common source of asbestos exposure: decaying gaskets in furnace doors and damaged insulation around pipes and boilers.

But asbestos was also commonly used to insulate overhead heating ducts. “Removing damaged duct insulation is the most common residential job we do,” Reum said.

Before the 1950s, most heating ducts were insulated with an asbestos-lined paper. From the ‘50s through the early 1970s, air-cell insulation was almost universal in the heating industry--and most of it contained asbestos. In the mid-70s a new product, Alumasbestos, came into use.

In all of its forms, asbestos duct insulation can become friable, either through deterioration or from damage that rips the paper, plastic or aluminum outer coatings and exposes asbestos to the air.

Another common use for asbestos in the home was in ubiquitous spray-on acoustic, or “cottage cheese,” ceilings. In most cases, those ceilings are safe--as long as the homeowner uses a little common sense.

Do not sweep or dust or paint them with devices that will knock the material loose, and do not vacuum up particles that fall down. Reum recommends using a moistened paper towel to pick up loose particles, which then should be sealed in a plastic bag for disposal. He said that an airless spray gun is the safest tool to use in painting such a ceiling.

If your acoustic ceiling is damaged, or if you are remodeling and need to remove it, have samples tested from several areas of the ceiling in each room in which it appears to determine whether asbestos is present.

“You should take several samples,” Reum said, “because sometimes, depending on how the stuff was mixed, one area can be asbestos-free while another will have a high concentration.”

Inspections for asbestos can be done by Cal-OSHA approved asbestos abatement and removal contractors and by industrial hygienists. All will involve testing of material, Reum said, “because no matter how long you’ve been in this business, you can’t tell just by looking at something whether it has asbestos or not.”

A few rules of thumb to follow if you contract an inspection:

Do not deal with an outfit that tries to frighten you into having work done. High-pressure tactics, in asbestos removal as in most any other field, generally signal a shoddy operation.

Get several estimates before you hire a firm for removal or abatement work. A recent job involving removal of about 300 square feet of sprayed-on acoustic ceiling material in two rooms brought bids of $950, $1,000 and $2,400 from three Orange County-based asbestos contractors. And the high bidder on that job was the low bidder, by a factor of 50%, on a job calling for removal of exterior wall shingles.

Do not assume that just because a material has asbestos, it must be removed. Many asbestos-laden materials are safe. Linoleum and vinyl-asbestos floor tile, for example, is dangerous only if you are ripping it up or for some reason want to sand it. And undamaged acoustic ceilings are usually best left alone.

Floors and ceilings containing asbestos can also be covered over, on floors with plywood and new flooring and on ceilings with dry-wall gypsum board and new plaster or paint. Ceilings can also be encapsulated by spraying a chemical agent that bonds with the asbestos fibers and seals them in plastic coating.

Asbestos consultants, asbestos removal and abatement contractors and industrial hygienists are all listed in the Yellow Pages.

Are you handy? Do you install your own skylights, French doors and electric lighting, or build your own bookshelves, gazebos, brick walls or wine cellars? If you have completed--or are in the midst of--special projects around your house, share them and your expertise. Write: Do-It-Yourself, Orange County Life, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626.