Help me do some risk analysis about asbestos siding and ceiling tiles.
February 18, 2009 6:36 AM   Subscribe

A house I'm considering buying has asbestos siding and possibly asbestos ceiling tiles as well. What are the real dangers, and what considerations I should take into account in making my decision?

Assume for the sake of the question that I know for sure that the ceiling tiles are asbestos. I *do* know for sure that the siding is.

I'm a first time home buyer, and so feel pretty ignorant about potential house issues. What I've learned from the internets about asbestos is typically that it's OK as long as you don't disturb it. That doesn't reassure me very well, though.

What makes it become disturbed? If I install a ceiling fan will it put me at risk? How about if I accidentally scrape the ceiling when moving in furniture, etc.? What if I accidentally scratch the side of the house with, say, a garden tool? How would I know if I need to replace either the ceiling tiles or the siding? How much of a total pain in the rear and/or expensive would it be to do so?

If it matters, the location is Durham, NC, and the house was built in 1943.
posted by Stewriffic to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The danger is actually fairly minimal, unless you're a construction worker. It takes a lot of exposure to airborne asbestos to cause a problem. In addition, there are multiple kinds of asbestos, and only one has been proven toxic. I would still wear a breathing mask if you're going to drill holes in it, just in case. Otherwise, I'd say you're pretty safe.

As to the expense to replace all of it, I really couldn't say.
posted by Gneisskate at 6:41 AM on February 18, 2009

The only way you're going to put yourself in danger is if you generate significant amounts of dust from the asbestos. It's pretty tough stuff generally, so don't worry about scraping or knocking it.

When cutting, drilling or removing asbestos for DIY purposes it's a good idea to wet it first. This will drastically reduce the amount of dust produced. And wear a mask.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 6:47 AM on February 18, 2009

There are a couple ways to mitigate asbestos. Removal is the method most people are familiar with, but encapsulation is a lot easier and cheaper. You might want to consider putting a layer of drywall over the ceiling tile (assuming it's stapled to the ceiling, or otherwise not a drop ceiling). If it's a drop ceiling just lift the tiles out, bag it up and be done with it. Always wear a cartridge style respirator when you're working on it, and it wouldn't be a bad idea to have a shop vac with a HEPA filter with you as well.

As for the siding, you have less to worry about there. The stuff is nigh indestructible, so I wouldn't worry about damaging it too much.

In general though, as long as the asbestos containing product appears to be intact and undamaged, you should be ok.

Also, if you're comfortable with the idea, some municipalities allow a homeowner to remove and dispose of asbestos at the local landfill as long as you take the proper precautions.
posted by electroboy at 6:54 AM on February 18, 2009

The only danger from asbestos siding (which we have on our house) is if you were to grind up a piece of siding and snort it.
posted by Lucinda at 6:54 AM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's not unusual. A lot of houses built before the 1980s have asbestos somewhere. If you're looking at houses from the same general era you might have a hard time finding a house without asbestos.

I can't speak for the hazards, but one thing to consider is if you ever want to do any work, like replacing the siding, you'll need an asbestos clean-up crew to do the removal. This will cost a lot and might require you to abandon the house while the work is being done.

We demolished a house and had to have a kitchen floor removed by a crew before the demolition. It cost a couple thousand and we weren't allowed to go any further until 10 days after the removal.
posted by bondcliff at 6:57 AM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah, and definitely try to wring some cash out the seller by getting an estimate from a removal contractor.
posted by electroboy at 6:58 AM on February 18, 2009

I had asbestos slate siding on my old house. I was told that it wasn't a danger unless I broke it into little bits or cut it with a saw. I decided to take it off the house and the county asbestos people told me to wear a respirator with an asbestos filter, wet the siding with a hose, put the siding pieces in a bag instead of tossing them to the ground where they would break, and bring the plastic bags to the landfill on Asbestos Tuesday, which if I remember right was once a month. That was about 15 years ago; laws might have changed since then. But no one was alarmed by my siding or my work in taking it off, and it was considered OK for a careful consumer to do it herself. The main challenge was the weight of the wet slate.

If the ceiling tiles are asbestos board (sort of a thin cement board), you might be able to remove them yourself, though it would probably be best to just paint or drywall over them and leave them alone. I removed that sort of board from my house. If they're softer and crumbly, I would look into some way to seal them in place and get estimates for that. Your county should have a person who can answer these questions for you.
posted by PatoPata at 7:00 AM on February 18, 2009

What bondcliff said. It's not an issue as is (the danger with asbestos occurs when it goes airborne, i.e. when you break it), but the thing to consider is whether you'd want to remove/alter or work on the areas in question in the future. It's certainly worth consulting a contractor to ballpark those potential costs, and checking out what regulations might pertain to you when doing that type of work.
posted by Herkimer at 7:02 AM on February 18, 2009

Something else to consider is how long you'll be in the house, and if you plan on trying to resell the house later.

Houses with asbestos and lead paint do not sell as well as those which don't have those hazards. (Obviously.)

If you plan on being in the house for 10 years or more, then you will probably end up doing something that will involve dealing with the asbestos. Depending on your location, that can be crazy expensive.

Also keep in mind that any place that has asbestos probably also has lead paint. If you have kids, or are planning on kids, then you'll want to strip all of that stuff out first. I always thought it was silly to worry about, but having been around a lot of toddlers in the past few years, I can tell you that children will put anything in their mouths. They're weird that way.

Call a local remodeler and find out what it would cost to remove and replace asbestos inside the house. The stuff outside the house probably isn't much of an issue. Negotiate your price accordingly, should you decide to move forward with this purchase.

Data point: I've bought, remodeled and built houses. (Rather, I've had one built, I've remodeled a very old house, and I had to fix/remodel one built in the 60's.) Given the current real estate market, where astounding properties are auctioning for pennies on the dollar, I personally wouldn't buy a house that I *knew* was going to take 20k+ in remodeling, especially if that remodeling was going to require the removal of all my stuff and vacating the property for up to two weeks...which is what you'll have to do if you replace the asbestos. (Unless the house was just amazing, like a heritage home, or on a property that made it worth that sort of hassle.)

Asbestos and lead paint are huge red flags to me, and I would tend to avoid property that had built-in time bombs.
posted by dejah420 at 8:05 AM on February 18, 2009

Agreeing with dejah420 that you need to think through the resale issues. If the price is already significantly discounted due to the asbestos as well as the current housing market, you may be getting a good deal, but I would go into this only with a plan to eliminate all the asbestos as well as lead paint eventually. Encapsulation is well and good but would create new issues if you ever wanted to demolish the place. Best bet is to plan complete removal.

The shingles probably don't require a specialized contractor. I worked on a habitat for humanity house where we took asbestos shingles off; they just had to be wrapped in plastic for special disposal somewhere. So that's a possible DIY job. Ceiling tiles might be, also, if they come off without too much trouble.
posted by beagle at 9:21 AM on February 18, 2009

I would have the seller give you the information, in writing, about that asbestos-containing materials are present. (I would also have them give you info on lead-based paint, which, by law, the seller needs to do.)

That said, the siding is of minimal risk, either leaving it there or taking it off and replacing it. As for asbestos-containing ceiling tiles, I would ask that they be replaced, even if that adds to the price of the house. You CAN DIY, but I would be careful with that. The reason I would change out the ceiling tiles is that they CAN get damaged, which leads to a fiber release, albeit small. But, even a small release can put fibers into your lungs forever, which, again is not usually a problem but why do it?

The lead paint? Well every old house has it. Lead paint dust does not stay airborne, but if you know you are dealing with it, you can prep it safely and then clean up with a moist towel and not have exposure (just don't power-sand or use a torch). I know people who have abated every bit of lead-based paint from their houses, and I do not feel they have made them that much safer.
posted by Danf at 11:08 AM on February 18, 2009

I worked on a class-action legal case for a couple years dealing with asbestos. I've read literally thousands of reports on health, abatement, construction, the whole gamut. That said, I'm not a doctor or a lawyer, so take this with a grain of salt.

The only problem you'll have with asbestos is in resale value. The health risks are so overblown as to be laughable. Even though they are so small, they are exponentially smaller yet if you don't smoke. If you are truly concerned about the minimal health risks, then you should know that every bit of the same data applies to fiberglass insulation. Small bits can get in your lungs, and if you disturb the asbestos or fiberglass for a long period of time, inhale it, and are extremely unlucky, you may get scarring in the lungs.

My final conclusion was that it was a giant media and cultural hysteria that caused all the lawsuits. Similar to the one that occasionally flares up about "pit bulls."

The craziest piece of data that I learned is that post-"abatement", every building always measures higher for airborne asbestos for several years.

The funniest report I read was an account of "snowball fights" outside of asbestos mines in Canada. It reportedly packs like snow when loose and friable. I'd suggest not doing that.

I personally wouldn't have a house with asbestos tiles, mostly because of aesthetics. Also because I know from experience that they are very difficult to modify or match when you want to make changes to your dwelling.
posted by Invoke at 11:12 AM on February 18, 2009

Thanks everyone so far!
I took a metric shit-ton of photos last weekend but just got them off of the camera.

In case this helps at all:

Asbestos siding
Ceiling tile
Hole in ceiling with cross section of tile barely visible

I have no plans to move once settled in, and I apparently can't inspect until I make an offer on the house.
posted by Stewriffic at 12:15 PM on February 18, 2009

As far as the inspection thing goes, yeah, you have to make an offer and put down some earnest money, but you can put a clause in the offer that if there is more than N in repairs according to the inspection, you're bailing & you get your earnest money back immediately. Make N quite low if you have any doubts. You will have to pay for the inspection upfront though and they're usually about $400 or thereabouts, at least in Asheville.

Can't advise you on the asbestos ceiling tiles but as everyone else has said, asbestos siding is no big deal. I lived in a house with asbestos siding and actually, I thought it was great: hey, the house was not going to burn down!
posted by mygothlaundry at 1:34 PM on February 18, 2009

Ugh. Just pass on it. Yuck. Seriously, why would you buy a toxic waste dump? Think about it. There is a reason these places sell slowly.
posted by Muirwylde at 3:10 PM on February 18, 2009

My dad died from mesothelioma. Watching him go through that there is no way I would ever even risk it. It's an awful, lingering death. Maybe just my experience but I'd never in a million years risk it. It only takes one inhaled fiber. Just one. My dad was an accountant but he was working in an office where the building has asbestos ceiling tiles. They removed the tiles one week and my dad didn't think it was a big deal to work in the office while that was done - and neither did anyone else at the time! Thirty years later he could barely breathe enough to sit up. Sorry, just not worth the risk to me.
posted by BuddhaBelly at 5:00 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Is the cross section of the ceiling tiles white/grey, or is it brown or tan? It's hard to tell.
posted by Danf at 8:27 PM on February 18, 2009

There are some ceiling tiles out in the garage that are white/gray all the way through. They look like they're the same ones used inside. The one that's in place, however, does seem to have some kind of brown/tan core.
posted by Stewriffic at 9:35 AM on February 20, 2009

*extra ceiling tiles in the garage, it should say.
posted by Stewriffic at 9:36 AM on February 20, 2009

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