Most of Silicon Valley has pre-1978 homes, and most of them contain some amount of asbestos, commonly on the HVAC ducts and, more visibly, in some popcorn or acoustic ceilings. It can also be in less known areas, such as vinyl flooring or perhaps the glue under the flooring. Homes built after 1978 are far less likely to be effected. Asbestos can be found in almost any product, especially in older parts of the home where fire retardancy would be beneficial.
Very few people test their for asbestos in homes. Seeing that a seller has “no reports” on items like asbestos or lead on their home is not uncommon, but it does not mean it is not there, particularly in older properties.
Undisturbed asbestos is not supposed to pose a health risk. I know for a fact that my 1977 built home has asbestos on the boots, where the ducts come up to the heat register. Since it is on the external part of the ducting, not the inside, the air in our house should be clean and free from asbestos.
What is it?
Like mold, asbestos is a naturally occurring substance found in some soils, and sometimes mined. (Click on the image below to see a map of sites in California in which there is or is suspected to have asbestos present.) In the San Jose area, it’s known that asbestos was found or mined at the New Almaden Mine and also in the area near Communications Hill where KB Homes built a large subdivision.
Asbestos is the common name for a group of silicate minerals made of thin, strong fibers, best known for their use as excellent fire retardants. Not many realize that it occurs naturally in certain areas, including California. The most common naturally occurring Asbestos is Chrysotile, often found in serpentine, common to the Sierra foothills and the Coast Ranges.
What does that mean? Since Asbestos are minerals, that means they are generally stable and will not evaporate. However, the mineral can be crushed into a fine dust which will float in air – this is referred to as friable asbestos. Friable asbestos, suspended in air and breathed by humans is a carcinogen linked to the development of lung cancer.
What are the risks of asbestos in homes?
It’s usually contractors that must be especially careful of the risks, since asbestos is mainly dangerous when friable or airborne, which can occur when workers break, open, or move the walls, ceilings, or ducting that contain it. Good contractors know the risks and can identify where it is important for them and the workers to wear protective covering, such as masks and goggles. In California, contractors must be certified to work with asbestos.
I cannot tell you the exact risks. Each house, the amount of asbestos, where it is, and the condition it is in will be different for each case. That being said, it is common wisdom that so long as the asbestos is not disturbed and does not become airborne it should not cause harm. So don’t stick pins in that popcorn ceiling! Need to paint it? Spray on the paint, don’t use brush strokes.
How to get rid of it?
There are companies that can eradicate and remove asbestos safely. In some situations, the asbestos can be encapsulated instead of removed (which is much less costly in many cases). On ducting, for instance, the asbestos can be sealed by professionals with a tape, which is cheaper and quicker than removing and disposing of the asbestos. You have probably seen a very shiny, silver looking tape near a furnace – that’s likely what you are looking at.
What about getting rid of it? I have personal experience with this. A few years back, our refrigerator broke, completely flooding our kitchen. The floor had to be removed, and what did they find? The glue beneath had asbestos in it! Since it was beneath the floor, we never came in contact with it before then, but the professionals knew what to do. A special asbestos cleanup crew came in, sealed off the kitchen in plastic, donned hazmat suits and removed all of the asbestos filled glue safely. The room was sealed off for only 2-3 days, making it a relatively short part of the process compared to the other repairs necessary to fix our flooded kitchen floors.
If you are worried that a home you are buying has asbestos and you’d like to get work done or remove the asbestos, talk to an architect and consider having the work done before you move in. For instance, if you intend to remove popcorn ceilings and paint, both are easier done before you move in. Just give yourself a couple of days extra for the safe removal of the popcorn ceilings.
It is important to note that removing asbestos is homes is not a “do it yourself” type job. It’s not worth your health to save a few bucks. Depending on what you need done, there are professionals who can safely remove asbestos in homes, and they are not difficult to find. Please reach out to me if you need contact info for one of these professionals.
Information on Lead Paint on the ValleyOfHeartsDelight.com site of mine.
For the California government page on asbestos: https://www.dir.ca.gov/dosh/acru/acruinfo.htm