Containing Asbestos Hazards – Physically and Financially


When doing renovation and repair on existing homes and buildings one of the axioms I live by, and maybe you do as well, is “you never know what you are going to get until you open up a wall”. I got an early start in home renovation projects with my dad and worked in home construction early in my career – into my early twenties – and immediately started acquiring grey hairs!

It is perhaps a little ironic that one of my favorite pastimes is watching home improvement shows, in particular the “house flipping” shows. I confess my enjoyment of such shows may come from a sense of guilty schadenfreude as, sure enough, they open a wall and find the NEXT problem that blows their budget…often after having ignored clear signs of the problem earlier on.

Working in event/disaster response and providing restoration and recovery services often means operating in an unfamiliar environment dealing with damaged and degraded building materials, systems, and substrates. In structures developed before the 1980s, this often means you may encounter degraded or exposed potentially asbestos containing building materials (PACBMs) – or discover them behind walls once you begin work. This is one of those discoveries that results in additional unanticipated costs and, to control those costs and make sure your workers are safe, you must contain the hazard quickly and make sure it doesn’t get worse through inattention to some basic procedures.

What is Asbestos?

I know many of you may have worked on projects with asbestos, but for those that haven’t it is important to understand what asbestos is and why it is a hazard. Asbestos is, simply, a naturally occurring rock (mineral) with specific characteristics that make it an excellent fire-retardant material. The first use of asbestos was as far back as 2400 BC in pots and cooking utensils!

Composed of long and thin crystals that are fibrous, with each fiber composed of microscopic fibrils, asbestos was used in products from insulation, floor tiles, and mastics to vehicle brakes and clutches. It truly was a wonderous rock that, due to that fibrous structure, could be used in ways similar to thread in the manufacture of a wide variety of building materials and other products – including creating textile materials for fire-proof curtains, blankets, and fire-retardant suits. It was also used as a binder in materials for its fire-retardant properties, including wall and ceiling coatings.

The wondrous properties of asbestos are the very reason that it can also be so dangerous when friable and airborne. Asbestos is generally not hazardous unless it is friable, which means that the asbestos-containing material has become damaged and the microscopic asbestos fibers are being released into the air. When the fibers are in the air and floating around, the fibers can deposit on furniture, counters, clothing, and move around a building through HVAC systems – spreading the problem over a wider area. These fibers can be inhaled and, once in the lungs, can cause fatal diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma by aggregating in the lungs and puncturing the alveoli or plural lining of the lung.

Dealing with these issues in restoration, renovation and recovery work means being aware of the hazard, assessing the hazard, effectively controlling the hazard, and mitigating/abating the damaged, friable materials as soon as possible to remove the hazard.

Containment of Asbestos Fiber Releases

You may face a variety of circumstances on your projects, but for the purposes of our discussion we’ll focus on the partial collapse of a wall and ceiling due to a burst pipe, storm, or other event. This damage exposes and creates dust from the crushed materials, creates damaged edges that could release fibers, and exposes the materials to air flow.

Under EPA Regulations, asbestos is regulated under the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) for asbestos in addition to state and local regulations. These are good practices to follow even if your restoration or demolition project involving ACM in a residential building isn’t covered under federal asbestos regulations.

The first step is to determine if the damaged area that must be addressed contains asbestos. Remember, you and your workers are entering this space to view it prior to KNOWING, through inspection and analysis, if asbestos is present or not. So, the first step is to determine if the hazard exists to protect yourself and the homeowners from potential exposure.

For work such as restoration or demolition of damaged structures, a thorough inspection should be conducted by a certified Asbestos Inspector prior to beginning work. The Inspector will take samples of the materials damaged or that will be disturbed and provide analytical data that determines whether asbestos is present in the materials.

While testing is being completed it is necessary to isolate the damaged areas to prevent the possible spread of fibers and eliminate possible exposure of workers or residents to the hazard. The area(s) should be isolated as much as possible. You should close doors to the area, cover HVAC vents, and/or erect temporary barriers to restrict airflow (using plastic sheeting), and post warning signs/restrict access to the area. There are many variables involved in this response depending on the severity of the damage, the amount of dust/fibers, how accessible it is, or the connection of the area to the HVAC system.

At this point, as you have already engaged an Asbestos Inspector to assess and sample the material, they can help you with suggestions to stabilize, secure, and isolate the area until results of testing are received. When results are received, and if asbestos is detected, you will need to engage a certified asbestos abatement contractor to remove the asbestos-containing materials (ACM).

Containment During Abatement Activities

Once you engage a certified abatement contractor, they will mobilize to the site and build a structured containment to further isolate the damaged area during removal activities. Utilizing proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), methodologies, and technologies, the contractor will wipe clean and remove any items that can be moved from the work area and wipe clean and cover anything that is immobile to prevent contamination.

Depending on the size of the area, and conditions, they will use polyethylene sheeting to construct a sealed, negative air containment. This means that airflow will be established so that fibers are kept within the containment by connecting an Air Filtration Device (AFD) with a High Energy Particulate (HEPA) Filter to establish a negative pressure – pulling air into the room so that fibers don’t escape. The HEPA filter will remove the friable asbestos fibers from the air and bind them for later disposal.

To ensure that the work has been completed appropriately and the hazard removed, it is advisable to have clearance testing done prior to removing the containment. Once this testing comes back indicating no asbestos, then the containment can be removed for disposal along with the containerized ACMs. Following the clearance, the containment will be cleaned, dismantled, and regular work and can continue with normal work protocols.

What Is the Alternative?

Being unaware of the potential for asbestos containing building materials in your workspace can have several undesirable effects on the health and safety of you, your workers, and your client – not to mention the financial well-being of your firm due to potential liability. Properly addressing and containing the ACM also contains the costs, the safety hazards, and potential liability associated with the project.

Forewarned is forearmed and being knowledgeable and prepared to deal with these issues can save you a lot of time and money on your project. You wouldn’t open up a wall and ignore a leaking pipe as it will surely cause issues in the future – ignoring asbestos on your project may well do the same!

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David McCarley

David McCarley, CPM, QEP is Vice President of Strategic Programs at Abatemaster, LLC in Lexington, NC. He has 35 years of experience as a Senior Environmental Professional in Transactional Due Diligence, Asbestos Inspection and Abatement, Lead Inspection and Abatement, Indoor Air Quality, Regulatory Compliance and Management, Waste Management and Environmental Assessment and Remediation. During his career he has directly managed operations on a wide variety of projects ranging from managing asbestos abatement and utility relocation on the Central Artery/Tunnel (CA/T – Big Dig) to leading advanced soil and groundwater assessments and remediation programs/projects under the DoD FUDS/FUSRAP Programs, USACE HTRW Contracts, EPA Superfund Sites, and EPA Brownfields Assessment Pilot Projects.  He has a bachelor’s degree in biology/chemistry from Ohio Northern University, is a Certified Project Management Professional (SAGE Consulting), Qualified Environmental Professional (QEP), and has been certified in Asbestos Inspection/Management Planning, Lead Inspection and Abatement, and as an On-Scene Incident Commander for Hazardous Waste Emergency Response and under OPA 90. 

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