A common misconception going around is that asbestos is a manufactured material. However, asbestos is a naturally occurring type of mineral with unique fire-resistant properties, making it a popular choice in home construction for much of the 20th century. Asbestos was also used in other places where heat insulation was a priority.
Asbestos has been known and used for a long time, dating as far back as the Roman Empire and possibly even further. Interestingly, the Romans were well aware of its harmful properties. Some ancient records have shown that people back then already noticed a link between exposure to asbestos and lung disease. However, it continued to enjoy strong popularity in construction work for centuries.
It wasn’t until the end of the 20th century that actions were taken to minimize, and eventually stop, the use of asbestos for construction work, especially for residential projects. Before the bans, asbestos could be found in hundreds of different supplies and materials, from wall insulation to spray coatings, pipe insulation, and more.
The 1970s were a particularly successful period for asbestos producers, with demand reaching its peak towards the end of the decade. At that point, many social movements started to develop, targeting the use of asbestos and trying to spread awareness of its harmful effects.
The complete ban on asbestos didn’t happen until 1989, and even that situation didn’t last long. The ban was overturned just two years later, with provisions allowing the use of asbestos in limited quantities and for specific applications.
Asbestos is still used in various forms, especially outside the construction industry. Automotive manufacturing is a common example of an industry that extensively uses the material for multiple purposes.
In its raw form, asbestos resembles a rock with a slightly dark green tint. However, when a piece of asbestos is broken apart, it reveals a microscopic fibrous interior.
That’s what gives asbestos its unique properties. The fibrous nature of the material allows it to easily trap pockets of air, preventing heat transfer and working as an excellent insulating barrier between different areas. But, unfortunately, that’s also what makes asbestos so harmful. These microscopic fibers can break apart easily, and tiny shards of them can make their way into a person’s lungs, causing severe damage that’s often permanent.
Asbestos can be found in many places inside an old house. As a general rule, the older a house is, and the longer it’s gone without any renovation work, the more likely it is to find asbestos in different parts of it. Some common examples include:
- Wall insulation
- Ceiling material
- Pipe insulation
- Floor covering
You can also find asbestos in unexpected locations, such as your carpet underlay and even your floor if it’s made of concrete. Part of the problem with asbestos is its huge prevalence and the difficulty in fully assessing a situation for its presence. It’s not rare that homes have to undergo a complete renovation to ensure that asbestos has been fully removed.
It’s hard to track the prevalence of asbestos in current homes, but various attempts have been made to provide a rough estimate of the situation. And no matter what angle you consider this from, it never looks good.
In some cities, more than half of existing homes have been constructed before 1940, with many of them not having seen any serious renovation work since then. In some places, the percentage of old homes from this era goes up to as much as 60%.
Not all of those homes are guaranteed to contain asbestos. But if a house was built before the 1980s and has not been renovated, its construction has likely used asbestos in more than one way.
This makes it important to consult an expert who can provide a detailed overview of the property’s condition before purchasing a home built in the last century. The presence of asbestos can never be ruled out with certainty until a thorough examination has been performed.
Asbestos is unfortunately still widely present in American homes, and that will likely remain the case for decades to come. As homes change hands and get renovated, the percentage will gradually decrease. But according to expert estimates, it can take more than a century for the country to be completely “cleansed.” Until then, buyers are advised to proceed cautiously and always evaluate each property as thoroughly as possible.