Should we be afraid of our friends' new house?
June 24, 2013 9:27 AM   Subscribe

Our friends are about to move into a house that was built in or around in '60. They've had contractors rip out a lot of carpet and tile to replace it with hardwood, and the husband friend casually told my husband that there might be asbestos in the tile but he'd have to get it tested to know for sure.

He never bothered to to get it tested. They are moving in next week and we'll be helping and spending time there with our small daughter. They have two kids, so I think they should be concerned too. But I don't want to bring it up with them, espcially since I don't think the wife knows.

Anyhow, should we be worried about spending time there? These are new friends but they have quickly become good ones and we don't want to offend anyone or cause unnecessary alarm.
posted by kitcat to Home & Garden (20 answers total)
Best answer: Can you clarify a bit? Are they saying there was (maybe) asbestos in the tile they removed, or that there may possibly still be some asbestos in some remaining tile?

Asbestos is only a hazard when it is disturbed - the mechanism of action is that the tiny fibers of the broken pieces float all over and get in your lungs. If it all stays in once piece, there is no way for this to happen, so no meaningful risk. So, if you are saying that they just haphazardly tore out existing pieces that may or may not contain asbestos, then that is at least slightly risky and if I were in your situation, I may ask if they had any plans to find out for sure and remediate. But if it's just that some stationary item in their house, that has not been disturbed in years, may contain asbestos, then: that does not sound like it could be very risky at all.

More here.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 9:37 AM on June 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

You should share your concerns with your friends, as they would be in danger if the removal done incorrectly.
posted by theora55 at 9:52 AM on June 24, 2013

If the tile has been removed and wasn't broken with removal there should be no problem. I lived in an old house containing asbestos. We were told that unless you actually break or drill or "disturb" the tiles the asbestos is in a form that can hurt you. That is why so much care is taken when removing the product, it is disturbing it that can lead to problems. If the tile is still there and unbroken etc there is no point testing it except to know not to do any work on it, if the tile is gone it is not a problem assuming a proper handling and a proper clean up was done afterwards. I am not an expert on asbestos, just going off what I was told when I had asbestos containing walling checked in an old house I owned years ago.
posted by wwax at 9:52 AM on June 24, 2013

Best answer: Yeah, it's not clear from your post -- was the tile removed as well? Or did they put hardwood over the tile somehow? If they installed hardwood over the tile without damaging the tile, there's no risk. But I don't think you can just remove asbestos tile willy-nilly, especially since a lot of times they will just scrap and break up tile to remove it. I do tend to think that the risk of asbestos is usually from repeated exposure, but I understand your concern.

I would just tell your friends you're a bit concerned about their health because you were thinking about it. Let them tell you exactly what they did. If they did break up the tile, encourage them to test it because living there could be dangerous. If they removed assuming there was asbestos and followed proper procedures, then it should be fine. My house has asbestos shingles and many houses built around the 60s or whatever do have asbestos tiles, siding, etc. and it is safe as long as it's not disturbed so particles don't release into the air. You should know what they did before you freak out.

I understand it might feel like an awkward conversation, but I think the way to play it is to express concern for your friend who will be living there 24/7, not for you, who will be visiting every once in a while.
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:57 AM on June 24, 2013

Wow. I would be pretty concerned and if I were the wife I would definitely want to know.

There's a very good reason why there are companies that do nothing but asbestos removal.
posted by Specklet at 9:58 AM on June 24, 2013

I worked around asbestos quite a bit when I was in university. I worked for my father's mechanical contracting company, and we upgraded furnaces, boilers and hot water heating systems in schools and so on, many of which were built in the 1910's.

So most of the boilers incorporated asbestos in some of the refractory bricks. Sometimes asbestos would be mixed in with the concrete pads and in the walls. But usually not.

Several places we worked would have had asbestos abatement, where guys would show up, seal off the workspace with plastic, put on suits and take out the nasty stuff.

Anyway, my father worked in that sort of environment for 45 years. He's still going strong at 72. He has some lung problems related to smoking (he quit in 1980), but that's it.

I think it pays to be careful around asbestos (obviously), but I don't think it's anything to panic about.
While you obviously don't want to disturb the stuff too much, the people who typically have the most problems (ie, who die) from asbestos are the people who mine it, or people who are exposed to clouds of the stuff all the time due to demolition and whatnot.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:03 AM on June 24, 2013

Response by poster: Sorry for the lack of clarification. Yes, the tiles was broken; I saw it myself when they first showed us the house mid-renovation. There was definitely tile dust around. I highly, highly doubt a proper removal was done. But KokuRyu, your comments are reassuring. Knowing nothing about this myself, I've heard things like "If you get just ONE tiny speck of asbestos in your lungs, you're as good dead!"
posted by kitcat at 10:12 AM on June 24, 2013

So get the tile tested. It isn't that big a deal. Note that "there might be asbestos in the tile/mastic" is what everyone says, because there might be. Period. You can't generally tell by looking. So yes, there might be. There might not be. The only way to tell is by testing. Since it's already broken, get a fragment tested.

For what its worth, there was asbestos in my attic vent insulation, but in none of the tile or mastic I've had removed, even though contractors (pre-testing) felt it "might" have it. Get it checked, then behave accordingly (which doesn't necessary mean "if it has asbestos rip it out"; there are good reasons to leave it alone if it has asbestos.)
posted by davejay at 10:20 AM on June 24, 2013

Best answer: If they removed the tile that 'might' have had asbestos in it and then covered whatever remained with hardwood there is no concern. A lot of old tile that people worry about doesn't actually contain any asbestos at all, people are told it may as more of a cover your ass problem than any actual problem. Asbestos in building material was only really common in areas where old building codes required fire resistance-like public schools and city halls-and in areas around fireplaces and furnaces in the insulation used. Sometimes you will find it in residential construction in other areas, but I don't think it is very common.

Asbestos in a medium like vinyl tile is not really all that friable or dangerous. And now that where the asbestos was is under hardwood there is no chance it is dangerous. The cleanup you need to do for the dust (assuming the carpet was removed also) is to wipe all the hard surfaces done with a wet rags and then throw out the rags. Asbestos is not that dangerous unless you get exposed to a lot of it.

A bigger danger, to me at least, would be lead paint on the windows and trim (if it hasn't been replaced since about 1980 or so) and lead solder in the old pipes, if they haven't been replaced since then. And the only way to be sure is get it tested.
posted by bartonlong at 10:26 AM on June 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

There well may have been asbestos in their tile, carpet, drywall, etc. I had my place tested and there is asbestos in the drywall mud and tape, in the linoleum, behind the outlet covers and switch plates, in the tiles, etc. Call your public health office and ask them how risky it is. E.g. mud might be 3% asbestos and they might not have ripped through it. Many, many construction items from before 1990 contain asbestos.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:39 AM on June 24, 2013

If you've been in a public school or government building, you've probably walked on a ton of this stuff. As far as "old building" health hazards go, asbestos floor tile is near the bottom of the list.

I wouldn't want to have been around when this was being removed (doing it safely is quite easy), but if the tile's been covered up and the house is clean, I wouldn't worry too much.
posted by schmod at 10:49 AM on June 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

The word you are looking for is "encapsulated." If the asbestos, or lead paint, is encapsulated within some other medium, there is no general concern about exposure. The reason there are asbestos and lead paint mitigation companies are for when the asbestos of lead is disturbed, like in a remodel. Just don't maw on the windowsill or poke at an asbestos wrapped pipe in the basement, and you will be fine, especially so since you will only be an occasional visitor.
posted by lstanley at 10:55 AM on June 24, 2013

The risks surrounding asbestos are when it's broken or otherwise disturbed and the dust distributed through the air. That's why you can walk safely through government buildings that are, say, insulated with asbestos. Mesothelioma can have a very long latency period, and so I wouldn't feel particularly comforted by anecdotes of elderly contractors with no apparent symptoms. And of course, anecdote isn't data.

Personally, I would say something, and I wouldn't feel comfortable having children in that environment, but my spouse was once a paralegal who litigated mesothelioma cases. Our general shared attitude is "You do not mess around with fucking asbestos."
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:56 AM on June 24, 2013

What kind of company/workmen did the work? I had tile in my house that looked suspiciously liked it might be asbestos, and it needed to come out. The contractor stopped cold when we got to it, and we pried a piece out, so I could take it in for testing at my contractor's request. It was negative. (Just hideously ugly)

Even if the family is sort of carefree about this subject, a lot of contractors won't go forward unless they are sure it's not asbestos. They don't want to risk their own health, and in a lot of jurisdictions, the fines are HEAVY for a professional company removing asbestos without the proper procedures, and even heavier for dumping it in a regular landfill. There are fees and all sorts of requirements.

So, even if the husband didn't care, I would think the contractor, unless sort of disreputable, would care quite a bit.

If they saved even one piece of tile, they can still get it tested now. It cost me maybe $40-50 dollars, and I had the results in a couple hours.
posted by instead of three wishes at 11:24 AM on June 24, 2013

lstanley: "The word you are looking for is "encapsulated." If the asbestos, or lead paint, is encapsulated within some other medium, there is no general concern about exposure."

A side-note on lead paint here: Don't be lulled into a false sense of security about the paint being encapsulated. Any surface that encounters a lot of contact or friction will never be safely encapsulated, and could easily become airborne, which is really really bad. Window tracks are particularly notorious for this. This is offtopic, but I just wanted to make sure that nobody walks away from this thread thinking "Lead Paint, NBD"

PhoBWanKenobi is right to ignore anecdotes, but most of the literature that I've read about asbestos floor tiling has indicated that it's fairly harmless, especially compared to other forms of construction dust. (I was working in a building where a ton of the stuff was being removed, and was alarmed by the apparent lack of precautions that were taken compared to other forms of asbestos removal that I'd witnessed.)

I too would probably say something, because even though the risk is minimal, it wouldn't have cost much more or taken much extra time to do this job properly.
posted by schmod at 11:39 AM on June 24, 2013

Asbestos floor tile is not friable. Also, if the tile was asbestos bearing it likely contained very little actual asbestos in a mix with other materials (it's not durable enough to be a tile on its own or in high volumes). If it were to have gotten into the air it likely would have had to have been cut out rather than just scooped out and tossed. So that's a lot of "ifs" - not a zero risk, but probably less than other exposure risk factors like, say driving behind cars and trucks with asbestos brake pads.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:41 PM on June 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you very much for your answers. I think I will say something, along the lines of "Aren't you worried about that chance that there was asbestos....blah blah blah".

I'd like to clarify one thing, though. As per one of the answers above, it is more or less correct that even if there was asbestos dust scattered about during the tile and carpet removal, cleaning with rags while wearing a mask is more or less sufficient? So I could be like "Hey, friend, let me don this mask and help you clean the floors and walls so everything is nice and sparkly!"
posted by kitcat at 12:46 PM on June 24, 2013

There are different guidelines for removing and disposing of asbestos depending on your state. I would really contact a professional asbestos abatement company in your area to research more, before jumping in on a DIY project.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:50 PM on June 24, 2013

Eek. I work for a contractor and we have found asbestos tiles on job sites. We immediately closed the site, tested the tiles, and hired an abatement company to clear the site of asbestos. Yeah, it's not a serious issue if it's not disturbed, but we were doing demolition, so we hired professionals to do this. I doubt your contractor is qualified to do this.
posted by futureisunwritten at 1:56 PM on June 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As per one of the answers above, it is more or less correct that even if there was asbestos dust scattered about during the tile and carpet removal, cleaning with rags while wearing a mask is more or less sufficient? So I could be like "Hey, friend, let me don this mask and help you clean the floors and walls so everything is nice and sparkly!"

This is what the abatement people do after they are done removing material. Wet the surface, then wipe it dry and throw away the rags. However, if you know it contains asbestos and you throw it away in the regular trash that is illegal. Using a HEPA shop vac first is also a really good idea. Asbestos fibers are actually tiny rock fibers (the rock is called serpentine or amphibole) and this is just dust. So however you clean up dust is also how you clean up asbestos.
posted by bartonlong at 2:05 PM on June 24, 2013

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