Asbestos is a group of fibrous minerals that were mined and widely used in a variety of products, especially before the mid-1980s. Some examples of products include attic and wall insulation, roofing shingles, hot water pipes coated with asbestos, and heat-resistant fabrics. Breathing in large amounts of asbestos over many years can cause lung damage and cancer.
Many materials in a home may contain asbestos. The risk from the asbestos mostly depends on how much of it there is and its condition. Removing asbestos, especially without properly handling it, can create an even bigger risk than leaving it alone. Only trained professionals should handle asbestos.
Because asbestos is used in a variety of building materials and construction products, many people worry about the potential for exposure to asbestos in their home. But the mere presence of asbestos-containing products isn’t necessarily dangerous; the risk that they pose depends largely on their quantity and condition.
Although materials that are in good repair will not typically release fibers, they may do so if they’re disturbed or damaged. That’s why it’s generally best not to disturb any material that you know contains asbestos and is in good condition. (Be aware that you can’t tell if a material contains asbestos simply by looking at it. If there’s any possibility that it does, you should treat the material as though it were asbestos or have a sample of it analyzed.) Also, just because asbestos is extremely durable, don’t assume that it isn’t susceptible to wear and tear. Known asbestos-containing materials should be inspected regularly for signs of damage.
If damaged asbestos-containing materials are discovered, it may only be necessary to repair them—not remove them entirely. A sealant, for example, can sometimes be used to encapsulate asbestos fibers, or an airtight enclosure can be placed over or around them. In some cases, however, the best course of action is to remove them completely. But, keep in mind, disturbing asbestos poses the greatest risk of releasing fibers and may not be safe if the job is performed improperly. In fact, improper removal can create a hazard where none existed before. To ensure that the job is done right, hire only a certified asbestos contractor.
There are rules about how asbestos can be handled and disposed of that are designed to protect workers and the community. All projects that include demolition, asbestos removal, or certain other activities must check for asbestos and notify the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) before doing any work. To report a complaint about asbestos, call SCAQMD at 800-CUT-SMOG or file a complaint online. Read more about filing a complaint about asbestos.
For concerns about asbestos in a work environment, please contact the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA.