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What Is Asbestos?

A 18 hazard sign

Asbestos is a mineral fiber. It can be positively identified only with a special type of microscope. There are several types of asbestos fibers. In the past, asbestos was added to a variety of products to strengthen them and to provide heat insulation and fire resistance.
How Can Asbestos Affect My Health?

From studies of people who were exposed to asbestos in factories and industry, we know that breathing high levels of asbestos fibers can lead to an increased risk of lung cancer.

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the chest and the abdominal cavity; and asbestosis, in which the lungs become scarred with fibrous tissue. The risk of lung cancer and Mesothelioma increases with the number of fibers inhaled. The risk of lung cancer from inhaling asbestos fibers is also greater if you smoke. People who get asbestosis have usually been exposed to high levels of asbestos for a long time. The symptoms of these diseases do not usually appear until about 20 to 30 years after the first exposure to asbestos.

Most people exposed to small amounts of asbestos, as we all are in our daily lives, but do not develop these health problems. However, if disturbed, asbestos material may release asbestos fibers, which can be inhaled into the lungs. The fibers can remain there for a long time, increasing the risk of disease. Asbestos material that would crumble easily if handled, or that has been sawed, scraped, or sanded into a powder, is more likely to create a health hazard.
Asbestos in the Home

Where asbestos hazards may be found in the home some roofing products are made of asbestos cement. Houses built between 1930 and 1950 may have asbestos as insulation asbestos can also be present in textured paint and in patching compounds used on wall and ceiling joints. Older products such as solid fuel stove may have some asbestos compounds. Walls and floors around solid fuel burning stoves may be protected with asbestos, millboard, or cement sheets. Central heating pipe-work in older houses may be coated with an asbestos material or covered with an asbestos type blanket.
What Action Should Be Done About Asbestos In The Home?

If you think asbestos may be in your home, don't panic! Usually the best thing is to leave the asbestos material that is in good condition alone. Generally, material in good condition will not release asbestos fibers. There is no danger unless fibers are released and inhaled into the lungs.

Check material regularly if you suspect it may contain asbestos. Don't touch it, but look for signs of wear or damage such as tears, abrasions, or water damage. Damaged material may release asbestos fibers. This is particularly true if you often disturb it by hitting, rubbing, or handling it.

Sometimes, the best way to deal with slightly damaged material is to limit access to the area and not touch or disturb it. Discard damaged or worn asbestos gloves, or ironing board covers. Check with your local, environmental agency, or other appropriate officials to find out proper handling and disposal procedures.

If asbestos material is more than slightly damaged, or if you are going to carry any building work in your home that might disturb it, repair or removal by a professional is needed. Before you have any building work carried out in your home, find out whether asbestos materials are present.
Where Can I Find Asbestos And When Can It Be A Problem?

Most products made today do not contain asbestos. However, until the 1970s, many types of building products and insulation materials used in homes contained asbestos. Common products that might have contained asbestos in the past, and conditions which may release fibers, include industrial steam boilers and pipe-work insulated with an asbestos blanket and asbestos flue pipe.

These materials may release asbestos fibers if damaged, repaired, or removed improperly. Never start scraping or sanding the backing, of cement sheets, millboard, used as insulation around boilers and wood burning stoves. Repairing or removing appliances may release asbestos fibers. So may cutting, tearing, sanding, drilling, or sawing insulation door gaskets in cookers, wood stoves, or solid fuel burners.
How to Identify Materials That Contain Asbestos

You can't tell whether a material contains asbestos simply by looking at it, unless it is labeled. If in doubt, treat the material as if it contains asbestos or have it sampled and analyzed by a qualified professional. A professional should take samples for analysis, since a professional knows what to look for, and because there may be an increased health risk if fibers are released. In fact, if done incorrectly, sampling can be more hazardous than leaving the material alone.
Method for Taking Sample

Taking the sample yourself, is not recommended. If you nevertheless choose to take the samples yourself, take care not to release asbestos fibers into the air or onto yourself. Material that is in good condition and will not be disturbed by building work, for example should be left alone. Only material that is damaged or will be disturbed should be sampled. Anyone who samples asbestos-containing materials should have as much information as possible on the handling of asbestos before sampling, and at a minimum, should observe the following procedures:

Make sure no one else is in the room when sampling is being carried out. Wear disposable gloves or wash hands after sampling has been completed. Shut down any central heating system minimize the spread of any released fibers. Do not disturb the material any more than is needed to take a small sample. Place a plastic sheet on the floor below the area to be sampled. Wet the material using a fine mist of water containing a few drops of detergent before taking the sample. The water/detergent mist will reduce the release of asbestos fibers. Carefully cut a piece from the entire depth of the material using, for example, a small knife, corer, or other sharp object. Place the small piece into a clean container (for example, small glass or plastic vial, or high quality re-sealable plastic bag. Tightly seal the container after the sample is in it.

Carefully dispose of the plastic sheet. Use a damp paper towel to clean up any material on the outside of the container or around the area sampled. Label the container with identification number and clearly state when and where the sample was taken. Patch the sampled area with the smallest possible piece of duct tape to prevent fiber release. Send the sample to an approved laboratory for analysis. Your local environmental agency may also be able to help.
How to Manage an Asbestos Problem

If the asbestos material is in good shape and will not be disturbed, do nothing! If it is a problem, there are two types of corrections: repair and removal. This should be done only by a professional trained to handle asbestos safely. With any type of repair, the asbestos remains in place. Repair is usually cheaper than removal, but it may make later removal of asbestos, if necessary, more difficult and costly. Repairs can either be major or minor.
Asbestos Do's and Don'ts for the Homeowner

Do keep activities to a minimum in any areas having damaged material that may contain asbestos. Do take every precaution to avoid damaging asbestos material. Always have the removal and major repair done by people trained and qualified in handling asbestos.

It is highly recommended that sampling and minor repair also be done by asbestos professionals. Don't dust, sweep, or vacuum debris that may contain asbestos. Never try to saw, sand, scrape, or drill holes in asbestos materials. Never remove material that could contain asbestos through the house. If you cannot avoid walking through the area, have it cleaned with a wet mop. If the material is from a damaged area, or if a large area must be cleaned, call an asbestos professional.
Minor Repair Work

Doing minor repairs yourself is not recommended since the improper handling of asbestos materials can create a hazard where none existed. If you nevertheless choose to do minor repairs, you should have as much information as possible on the handling of asbestos. As a general matter, any damaged area which is bigger than the size of your hand is not a minor repair.
Major Repair Work

Major repairs must be done only by a professional trained in methods for safely handling of asbestos materials. Minor repairs should also be done by professionals since there is always a risk of exposure to fibers when asbestos is disturbed.

Removal is usually the most expensive method and, unless required by should be the last option considered in most situations. This is because removal poses the greatest risk of fiber release. However, removal may be required when building work or other major alterations to your home that may disturb asbestos material. Also, removal may be called for if asbestos material is damaged extensively and cannot be otherwise repaired. Removal is complex and must be done only by a professional with required training. Improper removal may actually increase the health risks to you and your family.
Asbestos Professionals

Asbestos professionals should be trained in handling asbestos material. The type of professional will depend on the type of product and what needs to be done to correct the problem. You may hire a general asbestos contractor or, in some cases, a professional trained to handle specific products containing asbestos.

Asbestos professionals can conduct home inspections, take samples of suspected material, assess its condition, and advice about what corrective action is required and who would be qualified to make these corrections. Once again, material in good condition need not be sampled unless it is likely to be disturbed.

If you have a problem that requires the services of asbestos professionals, check their credentials carefully. Only hire professionals who are trained, experienced, reputable, and accredited. Before hiring a asbestos professional, ask for references from previous clients. Find out if they were satisfied. Ask whether the professional has handled a similar situation.
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