Asbestos in the home: What you need to know

Many older homes will have asbestos in some form, with past uses ranging from attic insulation to flooring

Adam Peron

If you’re in the market for an older home in Oak Bay, chances are good the question of asbestos will arise.

Property sellers are required to mention known asbestos in their property disclosure statement. However, depending how long sellers have been in the home, and what renovations they’ve done, buyers often first become aware of the potential for the material during a home inspection.

The impact of that depends somewhat on where the asbestos may be and future plans for the home.

Other than during a home purchase, homeowners also often become aware of asbestos during a renovation project,  explains Adam Peron, development manager for Hazpro Environmental.

Asbestos, a blanket term for a group of six naturally occurring silicate minerals, is resistant to heat, chemicals and electricity, making it an excellent insulator. These properties made asbestos a popular material to use in homes for decades – typical areas include drywall mud, sheet flooring and vinyl floor tiles, plus vermiculite insulation, fiberboard and ceiling tiles. Around homes locally, it’s also often found in pipe lagging – white insulation around boiler pipes – duct tape, roofing, siding and plaster.

“What it does well, it does very well,” Peron says.

However, when asbestos is disturbed, tiny fibres can be inhaled, causing problems in the respiratory tract, including the lung disease asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer usually caused by asbestos exposure.

“Really, the risk comes down to when it’s time to remove it; there’s a lot of health hazards associated with that,” Peron says.

Any home prior to 1990 has the potential for asbestos. Asbestos came into homebuilding after the Second World War, ramping up in the 1950s and ‘60s. “By the late 1970s there was a lot more knowledge that this wasn’t good,” he says.

Even a pre-1940s home is at risk, however, due to renovations that may have occurred over its lifetime.

In many older homes, “you can see four or five different layers of flooring,” Peron notes.

While some asbestos can be readily identified, such as in vermiculite insulation, other uses can be more challenging to identify. The remediation process includes three areas: sample collection, sample analysis and remediation, Peron says.

Those about to embark on a renovation project can reduce the likelihood of unpleasant surprises with a hazmat  survey, which can let them identify issues and adjust plans, if necessary.

“It’s a good first step for anyone planning on remodelling,” Peron says.

With sheet vinyl flooring, for example, homeowners may choose to add new flooring over top, leaving the old flooring undisturbed, or they may choose to reconfigure plans – or the budget.

The remediation process begins with having a professional take an initial look.

“People will look at where (asbestos) is placed in the home and make decisions on that,” Peron says.

Remediation costs can vary significantly, from a few hundred dollars into the thousands, depending on where asbestos is found. The same is true for the length of time needed, which can vary from one day to several weeks. “Every situation is different and every home is different,” he says.

Where asbestos has been used extensively through the home, it can affect the value for prospective buyers. “It can take a big chunk out of the property value because at some point it has to be addressed,” Peron says.

Remediation can involve air monitoring, plastic tents and sometimes a portable shower, negative air pressure for the home and Tyvek suits and respiratory equipment for crew.

For homeowners wanting to learn more about asbestos, Peron suggests checking with Health Canada (healthycanadians.gc.ca) or WorkSafeBC (worksafebc.com); Hazpro also has a variety of information at hazpro.org.

Be sure to ask for – and check – references and ask lots of questions, Peron says.

When choosing a company to work with, look for AHERA (Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act) certification, WorkSafeBC membership in good standing, and commercial liability insurance. The Victoria Residential Builders Association (vrba.ca) is another good resource.

“Get lots of details. The contractor should be able to describe the risk levels for the job types and walk you through the process.”