As housing buzzwords go, there are few that cause the kind of alarm that asbestos does.
However, given the age of the housing stock in Toronto, encountering asbestos is not uncommon. Prior to 1990, it was used largely used in buildings for fireproofing, weatherproofing and noise reduction. Although its use has greatly reduced, it's still occasionally used commercially for insulation, siding, industrial heating systems and in car construction (i.e. brake pads and transmission components).
While a lot of Buyers are focusing on bidding wars, escalating prices, and record setting sales, it's important to remember home ownership goes far beyond the initial transaction. And although you're likely to spend a small fortune buying a home - both in cash and debt - you’ll want to do all that you can to position your investment for growth. This is something we addressed in our recent post “How Do I Set My Home Up For Financial Success?”
However, there are elements to Home Ownership that impact not only your financial health, but your physical health too. This is why we created our “Healthy Home” Series, where we dispense advice on home maintenance, health issues and how to keep your home (and your health while living in it) in tip top shape. We’ve covered off topics like Radon gas exposure, mold, Sick Building Syndrome and now - asbestos. Today we’re going to explore what asbestos is all about, but if you're looking for more nitty gritty specifics here's a handy reference guide from the Government of Canada called Health Risks Of Asbestos.
The Health Risks
Exposure to asbestos is serious business; if you are improperly protected, inhaling asbestos fibres can contribute to asbestosis, as well as lung cancer and mesothelioma (which is cancer of the lining of the chest or abdominal cavity).
Before you hit the panic button, simply being near asbestos is not going to pose a health risk. If you’ve got asbestos in your home and it is sealed (i.e. behind walls), bound and sealed inside of products, sealed in the attic (i.e. insulation) or if it is otherwise left undisturbed, then you are ok.
It’s when you disturb asbestos, shaking up its fibres, letting it particles begin to permeate the air that potential problems emerge. This can happen during renovations. And unlike fibreglass fibres, which can easily be exhaled if they are inhaled, asbestos fibres almost literally have little “hooks” that let them linger in your respiratory system.
Asbestos isn’t just the material of modern day construction either; in fact, its roots extend as far back as ancient Greece, to the island of Ewoia, which was reportedly the site of the very first asbestos mine. In a nod to its Greek heritage, ‘asbestos’ comes from a Greek word which means ‘inextinguishable’.
It was widely used as a durable building material, but also was used in weaving of fabric that was used in clothing - and in the case of the Early Egyptians, as cloths used to wrap their dead, because of its perceived longevity.
As the centuries progressed, its use continued, gaining much traction during the Industrial Revolution. It was a multi-purpose, highly durable mineral that was highly useful in factories. It was also widely used in shipyards and rail yards, particularly because of its insulator qualities. However, as its use and application increased, so did incidence of pulmonary disease skyrocket; although use proliferated over the 19th and 20th century, a solid connection between the material and health hazard was established. Several health and safety and environmental governing bodies have established use guidelines or limited usage.
Most recently, asbestos has been widely used in the construction industry, because of its ability to trap heat effectively and because of its durability. While its use has diminished a great deal, you’ll still find it used in various industries.
Today, some countries continue to mine and export asbestos, but approximately 40 countries worldwide have banned the use of the potentially dangerous mineral. In Canada, it was banned in 2003.
Where Might I Find Asbestos?
As a homeowner, you may be shocked to learn that you’ve got asbestos in your home. However, given the age of the housing stock in Toronto, it’s not uncommon for homeowners to discover the presence of asbestos during renovations.
Even if you have already had your home tested for asbestos when you moved in, however when you start swinging hammers in renovations, you shake things up, literally.
Pay particular attention to insulation around hot water tanks and older roof shingles. Asbestos was commonly use because of its high tolerance to heat. Asbestos is also found in tape (asbestos tape is duct tape’s older cousin), which you may find around duct work or in other areas.
Another hot spot is underneath linoleum floors. Linoleum floors sometimes had an asbestos paper layer beneath them. And if your house dates from the 1950s to 70s, it may be in your floor and ceiling tiles or siding, stucco or plaster. Also notorious for asbestos use in early 20th century construction are building materials like cement and roof shingles. Also be wary of steam pipes and ducts, cement sheets, millboards and paper around wood stoves, door gaskets, in soundproofing materials and textured paints.
To be safe, before you undertake renovations, it’s a good idea to have a qualified professional in to test for asbestos, so that you can take the appropriate precautions. You may release particles when sanding down old surface treatments like paint, putty, caulking and drywall and when you start taking walls down or pulling up floors.
Hot Water Heaters
One trouble asbestos spot that is commonly seen in houses in Toronto is Asbestos around hot water heaters.
Prior to the 1980s “tank jackets” that preserved water’s heat were lined with asbestos. Today they are lined with other material. However, if you’ve got one of these, it shouldn’t be a concern as long as the jacket is intact and is in good condition. It’s worthwhile to inspect your hot water tank to see if it has a jacket and if it is in good repair.
Calling In The Professionals
Even if you are playing “asbestos” detective on your own and trying to determine the presence and potential hazard in your home, it is a difficult thing for the untrained eye to determine - as in you may not necessarily be able to tell just by looking at it.
Trained specialists identify the presence of asbestos fibres using Polarized Light Microscopy or Transmission Electron Microscopy.
Although asbestos can present some serious health hazards, you don’t necessarily need to panic upon its discovery. If it’s tightly bound or bound with a material that needs to be sawed or broken in order for fibres to release, it might very well be ok for the time being. It is possible sometime to repair materials that contain asbestos
The issue is what state of repair the “binding” material is in; if decay is a potential or is imminent, you should expedite your removal. To be certain, the only way that you can eliminate the risk of asbestos exposure to have it removed and disposed of completely by a professional. It’s important to work with someone who is certified in removal, so double check your contractor’s certification, because removing it can create an additional set of health hazards if done incorrectly.
Consult with Ontario Ministry Of Labour. for regulations surrounding removal. Contact the municipality to find out about safe disposal and call in the trained experts to do the work who are qualified in asbestos removal.
Here are some additional resources on where you might find asbestos, some of the health consequences and what you should do if you suspect that you’ve got it, or if you are considering renovations and your home was built prior to 1990: Hiddenkiller.ca, Asbestos Hazards When Renovating Older Homes and the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety’s Asbestos In The Home Fact Sheet.
Once you’ve secured your dream property, you must embrace the business of finding the best way to live your life within those walls in order to keep that dream going. We help you anticipate some of the issues you may face and help to determine ways to proactively make your tenure as the homeowner smooth and successful. Be sure to follow our Healthy Home series which provides useful home care tips and addresses common health concerns that homeowners should be aware of and how to remedy them!
Wonder what’s behind your walls (or your future walls)? With decades of experience in the market, based on constant research and a multi-disciplinary education in housing, we are not only here to help - we’ve got the expertise to be your best ally in your house hunt.
Steven and the urbaneer Team
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