What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally-found mineral -- actually, a name for 6 different minerals -- that exists as a group of fibers that can be separated into threads for use in many industries. These asbestos fibers are well-known for their durability and ability to resist heat, fire, and chemicals. Asbestos was first mined and used industrially in the late 1800's; since then, it has made its way into building and construction industries (in cement, plastics, insulation, roofing, and fireproofing), the automotive industry, and the shipbuilding industry. It can be found in many household products, such as ceramic tiles, paint, plastics, glues, and even crayons!
What are the dangers of asbestos?
In the late 1970's, the potential dangers of asbestos started to surface. As a result, its use was banned from many products, such as gas fireplaces. The EPA officially banned all new uses of asbestos in 1989, so it is much less prevalent in industries and products today than it was in the past.
If undisturbed, asbestos poses little threat to people; however, once disturbed, its fibers can become loose and make their way into a person's lungs. Once these fibers make their way into the lungs, they can sit for years and cause breathing and other health problems. Asbestos has long been recognized as carcinogen because of its link to mesothelioma and cancers of the lungs, larynx, and ovaries. Obviously, those most at risk are people who work directly with asbestos and experience continual exposure. But, the moral of the story is that it's best for all of us to stay far, far away from asbestos and asbestos-containing products!
Should I be worried about asbestos in my home?
If you own a newer home, asbestos is not likely to be an issue. However, if your home is older and was built before 1980, it quite possibly harbors some asbestos-containing building products and insulation. The following products/materials in your older home might contain asbestos:
Roofing and siding shingles (possibly made of asbestos cement)
Textured paints and patching compounds used on wall and ceiling joints
Vinyl floor tiles
Oil and coal furnaces
Hot water and steam pipes (possibly coated with asbestos)
Gas fireplace ashes and embers
Door gaskets in furnaces, wood stoves, and coal stoves
Steam pipes, boilers, and furnace ducts
How can I find out for sure if my home contains asbestos?
It is not possible to tell whether or not something contains asbestos simply by looking at it. This is a job only for an expert. If you live in an older home and suspect that it might have some asbestos-containing materials, you'll want to call a lab with professionals who are highly skilled in identifying asbestos (with the use of a polarized light microscope). Each lab has its own protocols, so you'll need to contact one in your area to get their sample collection instructions. Alternatively, it is possible to find an asbestos abatement company in many areas across the country. They will take care of testing specific materials in your home and then safely removing any that pose a threat to you and others in your home. In any case, this is definitely a job for a professional!