Paula Mitchell had to face an unplanned home remodel after the rainy season this year. Her Oakland house flooded and the linoleum floor in the kitchen, damaged by water, started to peel, so she decided to put in new tiles. But what was supposed to be an easy fix turned into a major project when the linoleum was tested for asbestos.
“And voila! It was loaded with asbestos,” Mitchell said.
Asbestos is cheap, water and fire-resistant and good for insulation. After World War II, the U.S. became the world leader in asbestos usage, because builders needed a cost-effective, mass-produced construction material.
But breathing in asbestos fibers may cause a lung disease called asbestosis, or lung cancer, or a rare cancer called mesothelioma. That’s why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) always recommends hiring professional contractors that specialize in asbestos removal. Mitchell followed this advice.
“It was a nightmare having the kitchen cordoned off and guys show up in Hazmat suits to abate where you cook and eat! What an eye-opener about the hazards of everyday living,” Mitchell said.
“The problem with asbestos is that it is nearly invisible, it is ubiquitous and you have to test it to confirm its presence or absence. An average person might not know where asbestos might be hiding,” said Linda Reinstein, president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization.
It can lurk anywhere from roofing to gaskets to pipes to linoleum or vinyl tile flooring in homes built before 1978. So-called “popcorn” ceilings and heater ducts are considered the most common spots for asbestos. If they test negative, homeowners often assume that their houses are free of the toxic material. But that’s not always true.
“I was surprised that the popcorn ceiling in the living room was negative, but the kitchen had to be abated [for] asbestos,” Mitchell said.
Alex Formuzis, director of the Washington, DC-based Environment Group Working Fund, is concerned that many Americans have a “false sense of security” with regards to asbestos exposure, because most people believe it was banned in the U.S. “years ago.”
In fact, though it is no longer widely used, it is still legal. The EPA started phasing out asbestos in 1978 and by 1989 had issued a final rule banning most asbestos-containing products. But two years later this decision was overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, leaving only a handful of products under the asbestos ban. The EPA web site has an incomplete list of the asbestos-containing products that are still being manufactured and imported into the U.S., from vinyl floor tiles to car brake pads to fire-resistant clothing, including children’s pajamas.
Household products containing asbestos require cautionary labeling, according to Patty Davis, press secretary for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, but manufacturers that use asbestos don’t need to report to the agency prior to distribution of their products.
Homeowners often underestimate the dangers of exposure when undertaking “do it yourself” projects or after reading tips online that claim for safe asbestos removal, it’s enough to take measures like wearing a respirator, using a HEPA filter vacuum for cleanup and applying soy-based products to remove the adhesive.
Oakland resident James Allgood said he recently removed asbestos-containing tiles in his kitchen “with a hair dryer and putty knife,” believing it would be safe to do so.
His neighbor, Chris Miller, said he thinks that asbestos “is not as bad as advertised, because it does damage only after prolonged exposure, unlike lead, which can be bad with even a single exposure.”
In fact, although asbestos poses no health threat when it remains intact, once disturbed, it becomes airborne and is dangerous. According to the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety, no level of asbestos exposure is safe.
Standard masks cannot catch the smallest particles of dust and provide enough protection. And “it usually requires a respirator, a Hazmat suit, gloves and safety glasses to remove asbestos without a health risk,” said Joe McCurdy, president of Union City-based Asbestos Quality Control.
McCurdy is a licensed asbestos-removal specialist and has been in the business for 30 years. He said contractors without permits to handle the toxic material can sometimes do as much damage as the handy homeowners who try to get rid of asbestos with hair dryers and knives. “Contractors are the worst,” McCurdy said. “Half of them don’t recognize the severity of removing asbestos.”
But even an expert like McCurdy doesn’t know everything about asbestos—he said he wasn’t aware that manufacturing it is still legal in the U.S.
Yet both licensed and non-licensed contractors sometimes get citations for breaking the safety rules when dealing with asbestos. Public records from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) in 2016 showed two asbestos-related violation notices issued to Oakland-based contractors for leaving waste on site and failure to notify the BAAQMD about demolition.
“Home remodeling is a big business in this country. Lots of people do it, but don’t take precautions,” Formuzis said.
If a homeowner sends a chip off of his home’s popcorn ceiling to a lab to be tested for asbestos, the testing will cost him about $20 per sample. A hired specialist who would come to the home to collect samples and run the tests would charge about $300 to 400.
If asbestos is found during an inspection by a testing company, only a licensed contractor can remove it, in compliance with EPA and Bay Area Air Quality Management District regulations. Depending on square footage, this could cost between $5,000 and $10,000, while a regular contractor would charge only half of that.
And even if all official procedures are followed, the fact that the house once tested positive for asbestos will remain on the homeownership records could affect the home’s resale value.
Oakland resident Jill Flomenhoft wonders what is worth more: your health or your house. She said she is terrified of “highly dangerous misinformation” circulating among homeowners who think that asbestos is relatively safe.
In 2014, Flomenhoft’s father died of mesothelioma, a cancer that has been linked to asbestos exposure. Flomenhoft believes it caused her father’s death and that it was “due to casual, incidental, untraceable exposure, rather than routine, prolonged or occupation-related exposure.”
“Even one fiber of asbestos can cause fatal cancer in some unlucky people like my dad,” she said.
Over 30 million homes nationwide contain asbestos insulation, according to Reinstein. “It’s reprehensible that EPA has failed to warn Americans about asbestos or established a testing and abatement plan,” she said.
The Environmental Group Working Fund estimates that approximately 15,000 Americans die every year from asbestos-triggered diseases. It affects mostly those who work as firefighters or in construction or building demolition because of their higher likelihood of being exposed to airborne asbestos on the job.
“And that number remained pretty flat, pretty consistent, although the use of asbestos has plummeted in this country over last 30 years. That’s concerning,” Formuzis said. “It shows that it was so much of it used in manufacturing back in 1930s to 1970s—that’s why there is so many people that still today are being diagnosed with mesothelioma, or asbestosis or lung cancer.”
And it is very hard to trace asbestos exposure, as it often takes 20, 30, or even 40 years before someone exposed to asbestos starts seeing symptoms or is diagnosed with these diseases.
The EPA is now reviewing asbestos’ safety under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TASCA), which was amended last year and authorizes to evaluate chemicals that are in the marketplace for potential risks to human health and the environment. Formuzis hope this will lead to a permanent ban on asbestos, but it is unclear when it might happen. (The agency has not yet responded to a request sent more than a month ago about the status of the asbestos re-evaluation process.)
“They were moving pretty quickly these last few months on prioritizing asbestos under the new [Toxic Substances Control Act] regime,” Formuzis said. But now with Donald Trump’s administration in power, Formuzis thinks this process might slow down. “You have a president who has gone out of his way before he was president to say laudatory things about asbestos,” Formuzis said.
Formuzis was referring to Trump’s testimony in front of a subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in 2005. “A lot of people in my industry think of asbestos as the greatest fire-proofing material ever made. And I have seen tests of asbestos vs. the new material that’s being used and it is not even a contest. It is like a heavyweight champion against a lightweight in high school,” Trump said at the hearing, testifying regarding the United Nations building renovation.
Neither the U.S. President nor Scott Pruitt, the new the head of the EPA, has yet announced any plans regarding the future use of asbestos. But environmental groups are concerned that Trump has already curbed several environmental regulations. He signed an executive order to roll back climate regulations, as well as legislation undoing Obama-era restrictions that prevented coal mining pollution from being dumped into streams.
Will this trend affect asbestos regulations? “I don’t know,” Formuzis said. “Asbestos is still legal. And if some industry decided that they want to bring it back and use it again, they could.”