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Asbestos Hazards: Precautions to Take when Going from Old to Green

Posted Nov 16 2009 10:02pm

Remodeling or renovating a home is an exciting proposition. Soon, much of the home you live in will be brand new and sparkling clean. The prospect of renovation is even more enticing when you know your home will be more environmentally-friendly and provide a healthier living environment for you and your family.

But the road from old to green can be paved with hazards, demanding great care and often the intervention of professionals who can help keep renovations on track, avoiding hazards associated with the presence of toxic materials such as asbestos. Asbestos, a naturally-mined substance once known for its durability and heat- and fire-resistance, was used extensively in homes, factories, offices, and schools throughout much of the twentieth century until the government issued severe restrictions on its use in 1977. Inside homes built prior to that time, asbestos can be found in attic insulation, wrapped around pipes or electrical wires, or may be present in drywall, floor tiles, or popcorn-type ceilings. Outside, roof shingles and siding may contain asbestos.

If you’re doing a green renovation on your own and your home was built prior to 1980, it’s best to have an inspector go through your house and check for asbestos before beginning any demolition or dismantling. The smallest trace of asbestos that becomes airborne when the mineral is damaged or cut can be easily inhaled by the do-it-yourselfer or anyone else inside the home. Asbestos inhalation can eventually cause a number of serious and fatal diseases including asbestosis and the cancer known as mesothelioma. A professional building inspector knows where to search for the hazardous mineral and can help avoid a disaster before it happens. If asbestos is found, it should either be encapsulated or removed, depending on the specifics of the renovation.

If you find you have asbestos insulation that needs to come out, it can be replaced with a number of more suitable products that have proven to be quite environmentally-friendly. Some green construction companies lean towards cotton fiber insulation, which is made from recycled materials such as denim. This insulation is completely non-toxic and carries no warning labels of any sort. Others prefer spray polyurethane foam, but be sure to pick the type that doesn’t contain any PBDEs (polybrominated dephenyl ethers), which are particularly toxic to the developing brains of animals and may cause nervous system disorders in humans. Another option is cellulose – finely shredded newsprint – made up of 85 percent recycled content. All these choices have been shown to be extremely energy efficient.

In addition to the alternatives listed above, there are a number of other products that make excellent substitutes for asbestos. Wheat flour, cotton and rayon are often used as fillers in lieu of asbestos, and PTFE coated fiberglass tape, which is heat-resistant and contains no dangerous chemicals, is a safe alternative to asbestos-containing construction tape that may be found in older structures and will need to be replaced. The possible asbestos alternatives are vast, and many are available at your local hardware store.

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