Dealing with Asbestos in Retrofits

Retrofitting homes to make them more energy efficient can be both cost effective for the homeowner and better for the environment. But in every older home lurks the possibility of asbestos which was utilized in over 4,000 different building products from sprayed-on decorative ceiling accents to vinyl floor tiles. Despite the fact that the dangers and health risks of asbestos were known in the 1980s, the national ban on importation and use of chrysotile asbestos was not implemented for another twenty years.

Once asbestos is discovered, the cost of your retrofit may spiral as professional asbestos abatement teams must be called in to remove it. Inhaling or ingesting asbestos can lead to cancer and other diseases. It’s imperative that you are able to identify and safely remove asbestos before continuing your retrofit.

Asbestos: a ‘miracle’ fiber

Between the 1920s and 1980s, asbestos was seen as somewhat of a miracle fibre for is strength, durability and its efficiency as a fire retardant. It also had superior insulating value and was traditionally utilized to insulate pipes, walls, attics, floors and ductwork. If your home was constructed before or during the 1980s, there is a strong possibility that there may be asbestos present. When asbestos is disturbed, the fibers become airborne and the risk of inhalation increases.

Health risks

When asbestos remains tightly bound in a product that has not begun to degrade, it is harmless to home occupants. However, when products begin to break down, the asbestos fibres are inhaled and can lead to a number of adverse health effects including lung cancer, ovarian cancer, cancer of the larynx, asbestosis and mesothelioma.

Places to look for asbestos

Asbestos sheeting (known as millboard) was utilized to insulate ducting and furnaces as well as pipes, boilers and hot water heaters. Cement/asbestos composites were used in roof shingles and siding. Asphalt and vinyl floor tiles and some flooring adhesives contain asbestos as does certain kinds of attic insulation.

Floor and ceiling tiles can also contain asbestos as can drywall joint cement. Vermiculite insulation is also known to contain small quantities of amphibole asbestos.

If you are inspecting your home for asbestos or are working in a place where you suspect asbestos may exist,
Health Canada recommends the following: “Wear the right protective clothing, including a half-mask respirator with a High Efficiency Particulate Arrester (HEPA) filter cartridge approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). These filters are designated as either N-100, R-100, or P-100 particulate filters. A common dust mask is not enough to protect you from asbestos fibres.”

How do I know if my house contains asbestos?

While professional construction crews are accustomed to identifying asbestos, there were so many products made, that even they may be working with dangerous materials without knowing it. The best option is to employ the services of an independent inspector prior to a build.

Independent inspectors will take samples from all over the house and test them for asbestos in a lab using polarized light microscopy (or TEM) to determine the presence and type of asbestos. If the tests are positive, you will have to employ the services of an asbestos abatement team to safely remove the asbestos before you continue your retrofit.

For a wide library of photos and a comprehensive list of asbestos products, consult the website here.

If you are planning a retrofit in a home built in or before the 1980s, there is a high risk that asbestos will be present. While asbestos is not necessarily dangerous if the building materials are in good condition, small fibers can become airborne when torn up or disturbed. Asbestos poses a significant health risk to you and the other workers on your site. Do not attempt to remove asbestos by yourself. In some instances, you must alert local authorities when asbestos is discovered and get a professional asbestos abatement team to remove the asbestos.

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