Until it was found to cause everything from lung disease to cancer, asbestos served as a flame retardant material in everything from construction to cars and planes. Even after its damaging health effects were determined, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the government sought to limit its use by banning its spray application and use on pipe insulation and such mechanicals as boilers and hot water tanks.1 Still, a visit to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website produces a list of asbestos-containing products that are NOT banned in the U.S. – and it may surprise you.
“Asbestos” and “surprise” are two words no buyer wants paired when they are buying, bidding or reading the inspection report on a house. Tight inventories are making older houses that may be less expensive, but in need of more work, attractive to buyers – and those old houses are likely to have asbestos that may or may not need to be abated. What should your buyers know once they learn about its presence?
What causes asbestos’ hazard?
Asbestos is a mined mineral that has a fibrous structure – it is these fibers that, when inhaled, can damage lungs and lead to asbestosis and lung cancer. Asbestos products are broken down into two legally defined categories, friable and non-friable. The former is any material that contains more than one percent asbestos by weight or area and can be crushed or reduced to powder by ordinary hand pressure, while the latter covers materials that contain more than one percent but can’t be similarly affected by normal hand pressure.2
- Friable examples: pipe wrappings, ventilation duct connections, mastic adhesives for vinyl floors
- Non-friable examples: roof shingles, floor tiles, exterior siding
How many 1960s-era basements have you walked into to find those “retro” two-color square floor tiles? Those tiles are typically made of one-to-two percent non-friable asbestos. The important thing to understand, again, is that asbestos’ hazard comes from airborne fibers. Unless disturbed, those tiles do not pose a problem – the same thing applies to the roof shingles and exterior siding. But once the latter two are scraped or the former start to break and crack from age and use, then the risk goes from potential to real – and typically the mastic used to hold down the tiles is, yes, friable.
Buyers who choose to purchase a house with asbestos have options for dealing with it, all of which are driven by both the type of asbestos and the buyer’s desire – not to mention financial considerations.
- Do nothing. As long as it is intact and undisturbed, non-friable asbestos does not pose a hazard.
- Encapsulate. For asbestos materials that have no or some, but not major, defects, encapsulation seals them in a special coating that protects against airborne fibers and can increase the longevity of the material. In the case of floor tiles, once the encapsulation has been completed it can either stand on its own or the buyer (now owner) can put a layer of floor covering over it.
- Enclose. Such materials as pipes can be enclosed in a special wrap or jacket that has the same benefits of encapsulation.
- Remove. Asbestos removal should be performed by a trained, accredited asbestos contractor. The EPA provides guidance at https://www.epa.gov/asbestos/protect-your-family on how to hire and work with one – it is important to remember that there are federal, state and local guidelines that must be followed.
Help buyers make an informed decision
There are many online resources available for buyers faced with a house that has asbestos, not the least being the EPA’s website as a start. If asbestos turns up in an inspection report, the buyer should do some homework before they walk away or move forward. And when you are armed with this knowledge, you can help them decide whether it’s a deal breaker or an opportunity to negotiate a better price.
- “U.S. Federal Bans on Asbestos,” https://www.epa.gov/asbestos/us-federal-bans-asbestos.
- “Friable vs. Non-Friable Asbestos,” http://www.hwma.net/sites/default/files/friable_vs_non-friable_asbestos-5-5.pdf.