Did You Know That Asbestos Can Still Be Found in Building Products? What Does That Mean for You?



Written by Ralls Melotte

Although the production of building materials that contained asbestos was banned by the EPA in 1988, the Supreme Court through the majority of that ban out early in the 90’s. The only asbestos containing materials that are presently banned from production in the USA are thermal insulation, acoustical plaster and spray-on fire-proofing.  Most USA companies have voluntarily dropped the use of asbestos, but since there is no ban on importing materials that contain asbestos, sampling conducted in the last decade has discovered that there are new building materials in buildings that contain asbestos, including products from American companies.

Since many foreign nations still mine asbestos, the products made in these countries have a great likelihood of containing asbestos.  Due to the global economy, American manufacturers have been buying these products to sell under their name.  The only way to determine if the products contain asbestos is to have them analyzed following NIOSH Regulations.  Because asbestos is considered a “Special Waste,” not a “Hazardous Material,” MSD Sheets are not required to list asbestos, yet, there is no requirement that these materials be tested prior to putting them on sale.  Because of this, the EPA NESHAP regulations require that all suspect materials that could be disturbed during a renovation or demolition must be tested in accordance with established regulations, regardless of when they were installed in the building originally.

What this means is that any building, other than single family homes or apartment structure with less than 5 units, are required to be tested by a properly trained and certified (or in Illinois licensed by IDPH) Asbestos Inspector prior to any planned disturbance.  The USEPA has a revised regulation under consideration at the moment that would require manufacturers to test products before putting them on the market, including products from overseas.  It is probable, under the current Administration, this may not be put in force for some time, so testing must now be done once in buildings unless the Owner has the foresight to test them prior to installation.  Obviously, it would be far less expensive to test these products once by the manufacturer than in every building that they have been installed in.

To understand what this means for building occupants and building owners, one must have a basic understanding of what health hazards asbestos poses.  Throughout the majority of the 20th century, asbestos was considered a miracle product.  It was fireproof, water resistant, unaffected by electricity, increased the tensile strength of any material it was mixed with and inexpensive.  It was used in insulation, fireproofing, sealants and caulks, gaskets and brake pads, roofing products, textured paint, concrete panels, drywall joint compound, plaster, floor tile, the backing for sheet vinyl and numerous other applications.  At the time of the initial ban, it was anticipated that if no more asbestos products were installed in buildings, renovation and demolition would remove most of these products in 20 to 25 years.  Unfortunately, not only has that not happened, but now new products are being installed with asbestos.

Exposure to asbestos fibers can cause cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma as well as contribute to other lung diseases.  The worst exposures have been eliminated by the few products that have been banned, but even modest exposures to asbestos has been determined to cause mesothelioma, a disease very difficult to cure.  Because asbestos is a naturally occurring rock, there will always be some risk of exposure, but it appears most people have a resistance to minor exposures.  Deliberate use of this product in buildings only increases the opportunity for this to be a potential health risk.  Although the federal government mandated that schools and certain federal buildings be inspected for asbestos in 1988, the only present mandate is for an inspection to be conducted if it is anticipated that the material will be disturbed and that is not uniformly enforced by many regulators.  The buildings exempt from any form of inspection cited above, single family homes and other dwellings less than 4 units under no mandate unless owned by the federal government, never need to be inspected for regulatory reasons, but are just as likely to have asbestos containing building products.

The school regulations, the EPA’s AHERA, distinguish between building products that can be easily damaged and cause an asbestos exposure, such as ceiling tiles, pipe and boiler insulation and uncoated acoustical plaster.  These are considered “Friable” and are the most likely to cause a health problem if disturbed.  A second category, “Non-Friable, Category I” are products where the asbestos is in a petroleum based product which is not likely to become damaged by normal use.  These include floor tile, roofing products, sealants and caulking.  A last designation, “Non-Friable, Category II,” includes cement based building products, such as transite.  These products are not easily damaged, but when become damaged will release a significant amount of fibers.  Other products that may contain asbestos and can release a significant amount of fibers when damaged includes drywall joint compound and plaster.  The only building products that are unlikely to contain asbestos include such items as glass, fiberglass, metal, wood, plastic and rubber, to name a few.  Most other products are considered “Suspect” and should be considered possible asbestos containing materials until proven otherwise.  The vast majority of new building products probably do not contain asbestos, but without testing, there is no way to know for sure.  If you or someone you know has a concern about possible asbestos exposure, we recommend you contact an asbestos consultant for recommendations on how to manage the product in question.  Analytical Design Group welcomes inquiries about asbestos as well as other potential building product hazards and can be contacted at 217-789-9515 or architect@mmlpltd.com.

Mold, Asbestos & Lead Paint Consultant