Planning a home renovation or demolition? Think about asbestos
W hether you’re planning on demolishing your home or simply renovating the existing one, don’t bring out the sledgehammers yet: if your house was built before the 1990s, chances are it may contain asbestos – and even a task as basic as tearing up a kitchen floor may cause deadly asbestos fibres to become airborne.
Over 3,000 pre-1990s building materials contain asbestos, from linoleum and sheet flooring to tiles and popcorn ceilings. “Asbestos was used extensively in residential construction throughout the 1960s, ’70s and to the end of the 1980s, primarily because of its superior insulation and fireproofing properties,” says Al Johnson, vice-president of Prevention Services at WorkSafeBC.
The materials don’t pose a health hazard if they’re left undisturbed; but when they are broken or ripped apart, asbestos is released into the air and can easily be inhaled. Worse still, asbestos is colourless and odourless: you can’t see it or smell it, so there’s no way for the average homeowner to tell what materials contain the substance or if fibres are airborne, which can lead to workers and even family members being exposed.
It’s a troubling problem, especially in light of WorkSafeBC numbers showing that asbestos-related disease is the leading cause of workplace death in BC: in 2015, 49 workers died from asbestos-related diseases including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma “Asbestos kills,” says Johnson, “and it needs to be taken seriously. This includes property owners of single-family homes, town homes or condominiums.”
Moreover, whether it’s because asbestos has been so indelibly linked to heavy industry or because home renovation/demolition is regarded as relatively benign, homeowners of pre-1990 homes are generally unaware of the risks hiding in plain sight. “We recently conducted a survey of adults in B.C., and of those who had renovated their pre1990s home in the past five years, only about one-third (36 per cent) recall testing for asbestos,” says Johnson. “In other words, about two-thirds did not think about asbestos, or did the testing.
“There’s an assumption, especially among people who are planning on doing only minor home upgrades, that asbestos health risks will be minimal and not worth worrying about,” says Johnson. “But this is a dangerous assumption to make: scientific evidence shows asbestos-related diseases can occur in even low-level exposure cases; so our position is that no level of exposure is safe.” Fortunately, it’s relatively straightforward to prevent yourself, your family and those who work on your home from being at risk, Johnson says: “At WorkSafeBC, our message is threefold: think about asbestos; identify it; then remove it - before work begins on your home.”
In order to properly identify asbestos in your pre1990-built home, a qualified testing company or asbestos surveyor must be hired. The testing company or surveyor will take samples of possible asbestos-containing materials, and send them to a lab for testing. The surveyor will then produce a report of the location of asbestos in your home.
It’s crucial to identify all asbestos-containing materials that might be disturbed during a renovation; otherwise, contamination may spread throughout the entire house.
The next step is to have the asbestos removed by a qualified abatement contractor, who uses the surveyor’s report to safely remove and contain all of the materials identified as containing asbestos. Once the job is done, the abatement contractor will provide a report confirming that all asbestos has been removed, and that the property is ready for demolition or renovation.
Hiring a reputable abatement contractor is straightforward. Lists can be obtained from the Hazardous Materials Association of B.C. or the B.C. Association of Restoration Contractors. You can find a list of top 10 questions to ask an abatement contractor prior to starting work at thinkasbestos.com.
Dealing with asbestos upfront in a renovation or demolition project will cost extra time and money. Al Johnson acknowledges this and maintains that “considering the well-documented risks of asbestos exposure, we think investing in the health and safety of homeowners and workers is money well spent.”
WorkSafeBC has launched an awareness campaign targeting homeowners – talking about the dangers of asbestos exposure, and their website provides comprehensive information about asbestos, where it can be found in homes, and how to safely deal with it.