Is Asbestos Abatement Still Needed?

Affordability. Availability. Fire-resistance. Strength.

Those four factors are largely the reasons why asbestos became such a popular ingredient in many products throughout the mid-1900s. Widely used in building materials and car parts in a boom from the 1940s through the 1970s, asbestos use eventually fizzled when the health hazards became better understood.

Yet, while homes aren't built with asbestos-containing materials any longer, abatement is still a major need in situations where such materials either have or potentially could become disturbed. In this post, we'll discuss what asbestos is, the health threats it can pose, why abatement is still necessary and the PPE (i.e., asbestos PPE suit) to safely work with asbestos materials.

Asbestos 101: What You Need to Know

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral fiber that was once seen as a key ingredient in many parts and building materials for its strength, heat-resistant properties, and availability. However, as we began to understand more about asbestos, the hazards of this mineral became clear.

Asbestos Exposure and Your Health

While many homes and properties are still full of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs), it's worth noting that simply being around a part or product that contains the mineral doesn't pose a health threat. It's only when this part or product becomes disturbed that it becomes dangerous because this creates airborne asbestos. This is most common in renovation or demolition projects.

For instance, when an asbestos-containing part or product breaks, small fibers invisible to the naked eye are released into the environment. If these fibers are inhaled, they can embed into lung tissue and lead to a variety of cancers and pulmonary diseases over time.

Asbestos exposure can also lead to asbestosis, or scarring of the lung tissue. These health hazards aren't likely to begin immediately after asbestos exposure but after several decades from when exposure first began i.e. long-term exposure.

Asbestos-Containing Material (ACM)

Asbestos-containing materials were frequently used in the construction boom from the 1940s through the 1970s. Here's a look at some of the common ACMs:

  • Floor tiles
  • Ceiling tiles
  • Insulation
  • Caulk, plaster, and putties
  • Roofing shingles
  • Siding shingles
  • Sealants
  • Gaskets
  • Certain paints
  • Fireplace flues
  • Wall sheeting

Asbestos may also be used to create other parts. Some of these include:

  • Automotive parts (i.e., clutches and brakes)
  • Piping
  • Certain fencing materials
  • Meter board backing

Is Asbestos Abatement Still Necessary?

It absolutely is - mainly for two reasons. One, asbestos-containing materials are still prevalent in many homes and properties, specifically those built when ACMs were used at their peak from the 1940s through the 1970s. In fact, estimates state that about 70 percent of structures built in this period still contain ACMs.

Secondly, asbestos-containing materials have still not been banned in the United States, though they could be more strictly regulated over the next few years (more on that in the next section). Though asbestos mining has been banned in the United States since 2002, it's still legal to import and use the mineral - and it's a mineral that is still used in small amounts in many products.

The Future of Asbestos Abatement

Though asbestos products are not banned in the United States, there are signs that the overall outlook will improve in the future. For starters, homes require upkeep over time - and those built from the 40s to the 70s are likely overdue for renovations and repair (if work hasn't been done already).

A good contractor will take this opportunity to assess any threats, test certain building materials for hazards and perform abatement work accordingly. Still, it's estimated that only 10 to 30 percent of "legacy" asbestos has been properly addressed.

Lawmakers are also likely to play a key role in the future of asbestos abatement. It's believed that asbestos is going to be more strictly regulated within the next several years, following the example that many European countries and other nations have set. It's up to the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce toxic substance regulation obligations.

Asbestos Abatement PPE

Asbestos-containing materials become a hazard when they are disturbed and people and animals are exposed to the small fibers that are released as a result. On this note, there is a variety of protection that is necessary to keep asbestos abatement professionals safe. Here's an overview of the personal protection equipment (PPE) that should be worn when performing asbestos abatement:

  • Disposable coveralls: Disposable coveralls, also called an asbestos PPE suit, should always be worn during the removal of asbestos to keep the fibers off your clothes and skin. These one-piece coveralls should be disposed of when leaving the worksite for the day to prevent the fibers from spreading beyond the worksite. Asbestos abatement job sites should also have a decontamination area set up after workers leave the job site where the coveralls can be taken off and properly discarded.
  • Respiratory protection: The biggest health threat associated with asbestos exposure is lung problems. Properly fit-tested respirators are extremely important at abatement sites. Dust masks and N-95 masks are not suitable for asbestos abatement jobs, as these masks don't adequately filter out asbestos fibers. The most common respirators used on abatement sites are half-face, dual HEPA-filtered cartridges. Before a respirator can be safely worn, workers must undergo fit testing.
  • Goggles: Safety glasses or goggles should be worn on asbestos sites to protect the eyes from falling or airborne debris.
  • Disposable gloves: Like disposable coveralls, disposable gloves should be discarded before leaving the asbestos abatement site.
  • Rubber boots: These help protect the feet and lower legs, especially if a coverall without attached booties is not worn. What's nice about rubber boots is they can be washed off after a day's work so they're free of any debris or asbestos fibers and can be used again the next day.
  • Decontamination station: After each workday, any tools or equipment should be adequately washed following use on an asbestos abatement site. This ensures that workers are not cross-contaminating any areas. Equipment that cannot be adequately cleaned should be discarded properly.

Other Opportunities and Asbestos Safety Measures

Aside from the PPE that all workers should be donning every time they step into an asbestos abatement site, there are various other ways to ensure that your business remains qualified to handle asbestos. Here's a look at some additional considerations for handling asbestos abatement safely and effectively:

  • Licenses and training: Contractors need to have the proper credentials to legally work on abatement jobs. Specific training is required via the EPA's Asbestos Model Accreditation Plan and licensing varies by state.
  • Educate the customer: It's estimated that only 10 to 30 percent of all existing asbestos in existing properties has been properly addressed. In other words, there's a lot of asbestos left out there that may need to be removed. Asbestos-containing materials often become a concern during renovations or remodeling. They may also become disturbed during water damage or fire damage situations.
  • Have an abatement plan in place: If you find asbestos, it can pay - literally - to have a robust plan in place for how to manage it. Also, be sure to let the customer know about any alternative options, such as encapsulation products. High-density polyethylene sheets, or HDPE sheets, are often a cost-effective way to close off a containment area throughout the home renovation. Polyethylene sheets/plastic sheeting help block any airborne fibers from spreading to other areas of the home.

Part of educating the customer about asbestos abatement is helping them understand that it may not be necessary in certain cases. Remember, asbestos is only a threat if asbestos-containing materials are disturbed.

For example, it might make more sense to tile over asbestos-containing floor tiles rather than remove them. However, customers should also be aware that often the cost to demolish the home and build a new home is cheaper than an extensive abatement project.

Asbestos abatement is something that's still very much needed - and it's important that contractors understand the health and safety risks they face on the job as well as their customers. This involves educating the customer about asbestos-containing materials, discussing alternative procedures, and then ensuring that workers are wearing the proper PPE and following proper decontamination protocols.