Not-So-Clear & Present Danger

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Let’s take a trip back in time. It’s Christmas Eve in 1955. Your house is decorated and merry, including sparkly, heat-resistant fake snow; presents of Amscan Crayons and an Inside Intelligence Secret Spy Kit are wrapped and under the tree. This morning, you brushed your teeth with Bristol-Myers’ Ipana toothpaste, admiring your pearly whites in the mirror thanks to the paste’s abrasive properties. Just like your mother did, you toss a little Johnson & Johnson baby powder on your skin to stay dry and fresh and dry and curl your hair with the latest styling tools on the market. Before heading out for a little last-minute shopping, you pop the Christmas Eve ham dinner into your brand new, well-insulated oven.

While that may sound like a lovely Christmas Eve morning, you unknowingly came in contact with asbestos every step of the way: fire-resistant properties of fake snow, contaminated crayons and other toys, abrasive toothpaste, the insulation in many of your appliances and hair dryers – the list goes on and on. At the time, asbestos was considered a modern marvel – strong, durable, and fireproof. Asbestos-containing materials (ACM) were a way of life. 

It would be another 18 years before the EPA would make its first ruling on the harmful substance, offering more wide-ranging knowledge of its health consequences. Contrary to popular belief, there is still, as of today, not a full ban on asbestos; the substance is still used in building products today, which is the root of why this article came to be: restorers still need to be testing for asbestos.

Regulatory History

To understand where we are today, it’s important to understand what has happened since the EPA began regulating asbestos in 1973. Here’s a quick timeline, pulled right from EPA.gov, to get us up to speed:

  • 1973: EPA banned spray-applied surfacing asbestos-containing material for fireproofing/insulating purposes. 
  • 1975: EPA banned installation of asbestos pipe insulation and asbestos block insulation on facility components, such as boilers and hot water tanks if the materials are either pre-formed (molded) and friable, or wet-applied and friable after drying.
  • 1977: the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) banned the use of asbestos in artificial fireplace embers and wall patching compounds.
  • 1978: EPA banned spray-applied surfacing materials for purposes not previously banned.
  • 1989: EPA attempted to ban most asbestos-containing products by issuing a final rule under Section 6 of Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). However, most of the original ban on the manufacture, importation, processing, or distribution in commerce for the majority of the asbestos-containing products originally covered in the 1989 final rule was overturned in 1991 by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. As a result, the 1989 asbestos regulation only banned new uses of asbestos in products that would be initiated for the first time after 1989 and bans 5 other specific product types.
  • 1990: EPA prohibited spray-on application of materials containing more than 1% asbestos to buildings, structures, pipes, and conduits unless certain conditions specified
  • 2019: EPA issued a final rule to ensure that discontinued asbestos products cannot be reintroduced into commerce without the Agency evaluating them and putting in place any necessary restrictions or prohibiting use.

The partial ban on asbestos began in 1989; but that ban is just that: partial. According to the EPA, this ban prevents the manufacture, import, processing, and distribution of some asbestos-containing products and new uses of asbestos. If you skimmed over that bullet point, go back and read it again.

There have been some revisions and updates from the EPA in more recent memory. In April 2019, the EPA issued “a final rule that strengthens the Agency’s ability to rigorously review an expansive list of asbestos products that are no longer on the market before they could be sold again in the United States.” The EPA is not allowing new uses of asbestos, and people subject to this rule must “notify the EPA at least 90 days before commencing any manufacturing, importing, or processing of asbestos-containing products covered under the rule.” 

The April 2019 Final Rule contains 19 categories that are examples of products prohibited from entering the market. For restorers, the most notable are adhesives, sealants, roof, and non-roof coatings, cement products, pipeline wrap, roofing felt,
vinyl-asbestos floor tile, and a vague “other building materials” line. 

That same year, PBS produced a special called “The stunning truth about asbestos use in the U.S.” According to this report, asbestos “is still used by U.S. industry, present in 30 million homes, and is a contaminant in consumer products, including children’s toys and makeup.” It also discussed the horrors of mesothelioma cancer, which has been linked to asbestos. While we won’t do a deep dive into this major health issue, it’s worth noting that this disease doesn’t show up until 15 to 50 years after exposure. So, ignoring safety protocols today when on the jobsite could lead to dire, painful, and deadly consequences later.

Asbestosnation.org and other studies estimate as many as 15,000 Americans have died each year between 1999 and 2013 from asbestos-related diseases. Globally, the National Institutes of Health puts that number closer to 255,000 people per year. They have an entire report on the Global Asbestos Disaster. 

The internet is full of research and information regarding asbestos usage both in the U.S. and abroad. Today, Russia is the world’s largest producer of asbestos, which is a naturally occurring material, followed by Brazil and China. Russia, alone, mined and produced approximately 700,000 metric tons in 2022, although like many asbestos-related stats, that estimate varies from around 500,000 to more than 1 million depending on the source.

Common Misconceptions

Dave Luce, owner of Luce Air Quality, is well-versed in environmental remediation work, including asbestos. He is an EPA-accredited AHERA Asbestos Building Inspector, Asbestos Management Partner, and Asbestos Abatement Supervisor, and holds a NIOSH 582E Sampling and Evaluating Asbestos Fibers Certification. With the understanding that the job of a restorer is filled with numerous inherent dangers, Dave is a tireless advocate for contractor and customer safety and doing jobs the right way. 

“As a society, we have known that asbestos is a carcinogen for decades. We have also established that the only way to know whether a material contains asbestos is by taking a representative sample of the suspect material, and sending it to a laboratory for analysis,” Luce said during the development of this article. “Asbestos testing is one of the most important things you can do to protect the health and safety of your workers and occupants of the building.”

In conjunction with the timeline above, Dave dialed in on a lot of the confusion surrounding federal regulations. 

Myth #1

The most common myth: asbestos testing isn’t required on buildings built after 1978 or 1980, depending on the regulation to which you’re referring. This confusion stems from lead-based paint use being banned in 1978, and testing required on any painted surface that is to be disturbed in buildings built prior to that year.

“The second date 1980 comes from confusion on when OSHA decided that if you have surfacing material or thermal system insulation and it was installed prior to 1980, there is no need to test it to see if it contains asbestos,” he said. “You are to assume it contains asbestos, and only test it if you are trying to confirm that the material does not contain asbestos.”

Myth #2

Also, Luce said contractors often believe asbestos testing is only required on commercial buildings
because of the EPA NESHAP rule, and not required on single-family residential structures. Again, he commented that “this is not true! Although the rule excludes residential structures with four dwelling units or less, OSHA regulations still apply to contractors – regardless of the type of structure or the year structure was built.”

Myth #3

This is perhaps the most common misconception: the assumption asbestos is truly banned. Luce noted there was a brief ban in 1989, but it was overturned in 1991 – and as mentioned previously in this article, asbestos is still used in building materials and imported every day. 

The Role of Restorers

With all this information at our fingertips, what should the restoration industry be doing to protect workers and property owners, and properly handle potential ACM on jobsites? It is estimated that just 30% of “legacy asbestos” has been addressed; and experts say that’s a very generous estimate. 

I was approached by Chris Sechrest, BluSky’s VP of Managed Repair Programs, during the PLRB Claims Conference earlier this year about doing an article on this topic. As I began my research, it became quickly clear that nearly every restorer takes this topic seriously. ATI Restoration, BluSky Restoration Contractors, and BELFOR all played a role in the development of this article. Each of these companies has a public document, shared internally and externally, on the company’s asbestos training and testing protocols. 

Here are the common threads between the protocols mentioned above:

  • Test all building materials known to still potentially contain asbestos.
  • Test all commercial building materials, even if recently constructed.
  • Test all demo jobs.

All the documents show a desire to eliminate gray areas when it comes to something as potentially harmful as asbestos. BluSky’s document ends with “For reasons described above, and for the safety of our customers and employees, we are required to test for asbestos containing materials prior to their removal.”

BELFOR’s protocol notes “testing is LESS EXPENSIVE than presuming the presence of asbestos and performing the work as if present. While waiting for test results, you can set up containment and work outside the damaged area.” 

But how do companies this large ensure protocols and procedures are being followed?

“Our environmental, health and safety (EH&S) Department performs daily audits on projects to ensure training and medical certificates are up to date and accurate,” said Jeff Huddleston, ATI’s Senior VP of Healthcare and Environmental Services. “They make sure all employees are wearing proper personal protective equipment (PPE). We also have training for proper protocols and policies for asbestos abatement in ATI University which is our training platform and has all types of training for all the different positions we execute.”

ATI also has verbiage about testing in their work authorizations or include it in a master service agreement if one exists with the client.

The role of restorers doesn’t stop at testing. While we won’t go into detail in this article, it is imperative to be sure your entire team in the field is trained on how to handle asbestos, donning and doffing PPE properly, obtaining the correct OSHA certifications, and so on. This industry is full of training academies that can properly equip your team to stay safe on the jobsite. Another thing restorers have in common: not wanting their teams in harm’s way.

Remember, in the chapter 8 the IICRC/ANSI S500 Standard and Reference Guide for Professional Water Damage Restoration, it says, “Even if the building owner has a survey for asbestos, the restorer is still responsible for identifying and controlling asbestos exposure during demolition and removal of materials.”

Is Testing Covered by Insurance?

“The answer to this is yes and no,” Luce explained. “This is really dependent on the carrier or relationship the contractor has with the carrier.  I would advise invoicing the policy holder and have them seek reimbursement from the carrier for cost incurred.”

David Princeton, Principal Consultant of Advocate Claim Service and regular C&R contributor, said “asbestos testing is 100% necessary following a loss in which its presence is suspected of being on premises.” Don’t forget, ACM could be in old and newer building materials. 

When it comes to getting covered, Luce and Princeton have similar answers: it depends.

“Yes, most insurance policies after a loss will address the asbestos hazard and pay for the abatement,” Princeton said. “Sometimes exterior asbestos slate siding is viewed as less hazardous than indoor exposures, but this is a naive point of view. Insurance does not address the cost to abate asbestos before a covered peril causes it to become friable.”

Princeton admits those involved in losses who do not have an appreciation for the hazard make their opinions known rather quickly. Others who do know the risks, the exposure, and the havoc it can have on people, treat it respectfully.

As a public adjuster, Princeton also holds the belief that trying to encapsulate asbestos after it has been friable seems to be a no-win and is not a situation the policyholder was in prior to the covered cause of loss resulting in damages.

“Most importantly, the insurance policy was written before the loss occurred—so if asbestos or other hazardous materials are believed to be onsite, then read the policy to know how it is addressed in the event of a loss,” he explained, while offering these tips:

  • Some environmental policies can cover asbestos-related hazards.
  • Every modern general liability insurance policy attempts to exclude the coverage.
  • Finding the “legacy” liability policies is key to having coverage for asbestos-related liability.
  • Asbestos is still used in a lot of products, heed the warning labels.

Key Takeaways

The goal of this article is simple: to serve as a reminder that asbestos is still a real and present danger in many restoration jobs today. Testing should be a routine part of the evaluation stage of a project.

Remember, in the words of Sir Jackie Stewart, “it takes leadership to improve safety.” And for all of us, safety should be our #1 priority.

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Michelle Blevins

Michelle BlevinsMichelle Blevins is a content creator, marketing consultant, and entrepreneur whose career has been centered around education and fostering relationships within the industry she serves.

A journalist by trade, Michelle is passionate about running a publication rooted in integrity and valuable education. She views her role as owner and publisher of C&R Magazine as a bridge between industry experts and restoration and cleaning contractors.

Since joining the restoration industry, Michelle has made it her business to stay on top of the latest industry trends. She has become a go-to resource for anyone looking to learn more about what’s happening within today’s restoration industry. This has earned her a spot on many industry stages facilitating panels and helpful discussion with industry experts on the biggest topics facing restorers and cleaners in the current market.

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