Until about 50 years ago, asbestos was considered a miracle fiber–as a fire retardant, superior heat insulation, and it resists chemical stains, so it was used just about everywhere for safety purposes.
Then in the 1970’s scientists discovered it can cause lung cancer and other chronic respiratory ailments, and although the government has curtailed the use of asbestos in most residential settings, it is still in older buildings, houses, even in the joint compound used to smooth drywall seams.
“Annie”, the name we will use for the Amherst mother who requested anonymity, was forced to stay in a hotel with her family, when a simple plumbing repair turned up the asbestos in the old joint compound.
“It was very scary, knowing that I could not be in the house,” recalled Annie after an asbestos abatement company removed the hazardous material from the affected area of her home, where a pipe had burst.
Because Annie’s house was built before 1980, the contractor that was hired to do the repairs, also brought in an environmental lab that discovered the asbestos, “They took samples of the walls, the ceiling–any drywall–and it subsequently came back positive for asbestos in what they call drywall tape.”
Older homes might also have asbestos in the insulation lining the outer walls, covering the hot water pipes, and in the floor and ceiling tiles, said Jeffrey Haynes, president of Fibertech Environmental Services.
“Since it is resistant to heat, it is impermeable to chemicals, and they found it good in fireproofing which is why it is in so many different products, including the spray on fireproofing.”
Haynes suggested do-it-yourselfers have to assume the old joint compound does contain asbestos, unless it is a newer build, and handymen should always use a mask–preferably with a respirator–since asbestos fibers are microscopic.
“You always wear a mask, but you monitor the workers to make sure they are having a sufficient protection level. So, for example, a half face respirator, you make sure that is sufficient for them.”
Those asbestos dangers might put a damper on some do-it-yourself projects involving drywall. Haynes added, the more reputable home improvement contractors will hire a testing firm to check for asbestos and lead paint, which protects their workers, and the homeowners.