Home remodeling remains so commonplace in the United States that we have at least two entire television networks devoted to it. And come on, who doesn't want to live nicely, cheaply? For a novice carpenter like myself, who wouldn't mind taking a shot at it but wants to make sure it's done properly and safely above all, it's tough to complete any moderate amount of home renovation without paying at least one subcontractor. To try and offset that cost, the one project most DIY-ers end up doing themselves is demolition of old space, to make way for new. I've done it a bunch of times. It's typically dusty, dirty, hot, sweaty and messy work. And although there does seem to be some perverse joy in the destruction of your home, at least for the first 30 minutes or so, it is nothing to screw around with.
The reason is because many homes that are still in active use today contain asbestos. Asbestos is a set of six, naturally-occurring, silicate minerals. Asbestos has unique physical characteristics that proved a Siren's song to the construction industry for decades, including sound absorption, average tensile strength, resistance to fire, heat, electrical and chemical damage and affordability. Asbestos also has the unique physical characteristic of being able to kill you - quickly.
You see, in addition to lung cancer, which is treatable, asbestos also causes a terminal cancer called malignant mesothelioma. This cancer develops from cells of the protective lining called the mesothelium that covers many of the internal organs of the body, including our lungs, abdomen and heart. Tragically, the prognosis for malignant mesothelioma is very poor. Treatment of malignant mesothelioma at earlier stages has a better prognosis, but most succumb, at best, within a year or two of diagnosis. There is no cure.
The acute danger to DIY-ers lies in the harsh reality it takes only a small, short dose of asbestos exposure to develop mesothelioma. Both OSHA and the U.S. EPA have concluded that protections and "permissible exposure limits" are not adequate to prevent or protect against asbestos-related cancers such as mesothelioma, and the asbestos dose necessary to cause mesothelioma is the lowest among all asbestos-induced diseases.
Asbestos remains in millions of actively occupied homes throughout the United States, particularly those built up through the 1970's. Left undisturbed, asbestos poses relatively minimal risk to homeowners. However, that risk can change rapidly when you start tearing up the house. Asbestos has been widely used for decades in many industrial products common to homes, including electrical wiring, roof shingles, flooring products, textured paint, patching compounds, wallboard, textiles, and insulation. When these items in old homes get torn out, asbestos fibers can be inhaled or ingested. Another potential avenue for the homeowner is by laundering a family member's clothes that has been contaminated by asbestos.
Asbestos has been known to cause cancer since at least the early 20th century, but industry chose to ignore the risk for decades in order to keep selling asbestos-containing products. The use of asbestos in new construction projects has been banned for health and safety reasons in many developed countries, including the European Union, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, and New Zealand. A notable exception is the United States, where asbestos continues to be used in construction such as cement asbestos pipes. In fact the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit Court prevented the EPA from banning asbestos in 1991 because EPA research showed the ban would cost between $450 and $800 million while only saving around 200 lives in a 13-year timeframe.
Today in the United States, asbestos can still be found in roofing materials, vinyl tile, cement piping, corrugated sheeting, home insulation and even some potting soils. So it is critical for us to consider the long-term consequences of our DIY activities and plan accordingly, because the danger is still very much out there. Here are a few, simple tips to remember before you start your next big project:
1. Know your home.
In older homes, find out the age of your home and information about the products that were commonly used in the roofs, walls, flooring, and insulation of residential homes in the era in which your home was built. You can consult your local county office for information about your home. If your research raises any suspicions that it might contain asbestos, consider a home audit by a well-qualified, licensed asbestos removal company before doing any work. Visit your Secretary of State's website to gather licensing and other information on a particular asbestos removal company. It's also not a bad idea to check with your State's Attorney General's office for information about litigation or complaint history on a particular company you are considering.
2. Go slow.
When you begin your demolition work, avoid the temptation to blindly start swinging the sledge hammer. It's fun and all, but a dust mask and safety glasses will not protect you from exposure to asbestos. Many walls contain asbestos-lined water, steam and/or ventilation pipes, as well as insulation, and best practice requires time and patience to develop a feel for what's actually inside those wall cavities, before you start going to town.
3. Use a pro.
If you do discover asbestos during a remodel, stop all work immediately and contact a licensed asbestos removal company. No matter how small the asbestos-containing area, this is never a project to try and tackle yourself. The professionals understand the significance and scope of the danger and most critically, the best methods to eliminate it and ensure that your home project is done safely.
4. Have the dough.
Anyone who is looking to remodel any portion of an old home should investigate and budget for professional asbestos removal, and hold off on any plans until the budget for this line item can be secured. The worst thing in a DIY project is to open up an asbestos-containing area of your home only to discover you don't have the money to do anything about it. If you end up not having to do any abatement, congratulations on saving even more money on the project.
If you know someone who develops mesothelioma, advise them to consult legal counsel right away. Litigation over asbestos-containing construction products has spanned decades, as well it should since industry knowingly concealed the risks, resulting in exposure to millions of unsuspecting individuals and countless deaths. As with all types of civil litigation, there are time limits to file a lawsuit or risk forever being barred. But even more critically in the case of mesothelioma is the typically short window within which one must act to establish the elements of their case. Experienced legal counsel is also critical to be able to quickly and properly identify the scope of the exposure and those responsible for it. Asbestos-induced diseases are at the top of the list of the most terrible occupational exposures out there, and I urge every home remodeler to be mindful of, and correctly address, the potential for asbestos exposure anytime you decide to do it yourself.