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Older Homes and Asbestos

One of the fun things about watching home renovation shows on television is the demolition. The more dramatically someone swings a sledgehammer, the better the viewing. And make no mistake—demo can be fun! But before you start smashing everything up, there are some things to remember about stirring up the ghosts of a house’s past.

Unless your house was built after the mid-1980s or so, the chances of asbestos turning up somewhere in your house is pretty likely. The older your house, the bigger the chances your house has it somewhere. You’ll want to have your house tested for it and if it turns up, you’ll need to call a licensed and experienced professional to remove it.

So what is asbestos? Asbestos is six naturally occurring fibers that can be separated into threads. These fibers seemed like magic for a long time because they are strong, fire-resistant and do not conduct electricity.

The Problem

The problem is that it’s also toxic and linked to cancer. And yet it was in almost everything, dating back to the ancient Roman buildings. Here in the U.S., asbestos use increased dramatically during the post-war manufacturing boom. Asbestos is frequently associated with insulation, but it goes beyond that. It was everywhere—roofing, cement, plastics, floor and ceiling tiles, paints, wall panels, window putty, stucco, adhesives, vinyl sheet flooring. And on and on. It wasn’t just housing either. Shipyards, schools, offices. You get the idea.

When you start tearing apart a house without removing asbestos, those fibers can break free from where they’ve been hiding and become airborne. Once wafting around in the air, we breathe it in and it sticks to our lungs, causing inflammation.

Before you hit the panic button, here’s something to remember: asbestos products in good condition can usually be left alone because they won’t bother you. The problem arises when the products begin showing signs of deterioration or are ripped out improperly. Or, say, it’s time to change out the insulation.

As long as you take proper precautions, like hiring professionals for testing and removal, you’ll be okay. A little common sense and a good plan before redoing your older home can save a lot of time, effort and your health.

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