Few products made today contain asbestos. But until the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) phased out its use in the late 1970s, it was commonly used in a host of building products and insulation materials.
If there are homes in your market constructed prior to 1980 – and especially if a buyer or seller plans to remodel the kitchen, renovate the living area, or replace old flooring or a ‘popcorn’ ceiling – there are potential health hazards you and your clients should know about.
Mined and used in North America since the late 1800s, asbestos is a fibrous silicate mineral that has both fire-resistant and insulating qualities. Little wonder that it seemed a natural choice for providing soundproofing and insulation around steam pipes and furnace ducts, in vinyl floor tile, between framing and wallboard, and in attic or roofing materials.
The problem, as mid-twentieth century scientists concluded after many years of study, is that prolonged inhalation of asbestos dust is linked to a condition called, asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs that can lead to breathing problems, heart failure, lung cancer, and mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the lining of the chest and/or abdomen.
The good news is that asbestosis poisoning occurs relatively rarely, even when people have lived in a home with undisturbed asbestos for many years. That’s because the microscopic fibers associated with asbestos must be airborne in order to be inhaled.
The bad news is that when asbestos products are damaged or disturbed – as they are during most restoration or renovation projects – the fibers do become airborne, posing a danger to anyone who inhales the toxic dust.
To avoid this risk, any remodeling project on a home built before 1980 should include a plan for safely containing and removing asbestos.
This should never be a DIY project. That’s because asbestos can only be positively identified and safely handled by a licensed asbestos contractor – sometimes called an asbestos abatement contractor – who is trained in the use of a special polarized light microscope and wears the necessary protective clothing.
Experts at Environmental Health and Safety Online (EHSO.com) say it can take as long as 30 years after exposure to asbestos for the first signs of disease to occur, although smokers who have been exposed to asbestos have a much greater chance of becoming ill – and because early symptoms frequently mimic flu-like symptoms, such as coughing, chest pain, and shortness of breath, diagnosis is sometimes delayed until the patient has progressed to a later stage.
In-depth information on asbestos exposure, as well as diagnosis and treatment options for the disease, can be found at mesothelioma.org.
But the important takeaway for real estate agents is that asbestos is almost always present in homes built before 1980 – and, in most cases, is harmless if undisturbed. But the next time you sell a gorgeous old Victorian, or even a modest, 3-bedroom tract home built more than 40 years ago, it would be wise to ask the buyers if refurbishing or remodeling is in their plans.
If the answer is yes, it would be wise to recommend that the project begin with an assessment of asbestos hazards by a certified asbestos abatement contractor.
As a trusted advisor in all things real estate, it’s just the responsible thing to do.