Lead and Asbestos Removal from Your Home: How to Cope with Household Contaminants

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Careless removal of lead or asbestos can increase the risk of exposure and subsequent health hazards for house occupants.

Often as not, the simplest, most effective method of alleviating an environmental hazard in the home is to remove the offending substance. In the case of two major household contaminants, however, this isn’t as easy or safe as it may sound. Careless lead or asbestos removal can dramatically increase, not reduce, the hazard to you and subsequent occupants of the house.

Household Sources of Lead

There are two main sources of household lead: lead-based paint and plumbing solder. Both uses of lead have been banned–since 1978 in the case of paint, and since 1987 for copper plumbing systems–but many (if not most) houses have some lead sources. A common misconception is that lead-based paint was used only on the exteriors of houses. In fact, until the hazards began to become clear in the late 1950s, lead in paint was costly and considered an indicator of quality. Inexpensive homes might have had it only on their exteriors, while fancier houses might have had lead-painted woodwork in all areas where moisture could be a problem: especially windows and window frames, but also kitchen cabinets, bathroom vanities and associated trim.

Health Hazards of Lead

Though the hazards of lead have been well documented for some time, the lower limit at which problems occur has been under almost constant revision for over a decade–always downward. In 1975, the Centers for Disease Control defined an elevated blood lead level as 40 or more micrograms per deciliter blood; in 1978, they reduced that to 30; in 1985 the level was cut to 25; and this year it will probably go down to 20 or even 15.

Lead is most hazardous to the fetus and to children. In the immature, it causes anemia, birth defects, damage to the kidneys and stomach, hyperactivity, poor balance, learning disabilities and retardation. In adults, it can cause kidney damage, hypertension, reproductive dysfunction and other neurological/physical symptoms. In addition, lead becomes lodged in bone over time and may be the cause of age-related mental problems when bone deteriorates and releases it.

How widespread is lead poisoning? That isn’t clear, because lead has received much less attention from regulators than many other indoor pollutants. There are few regulations concerning lead. The federal government has no actual standards and doesn’t consider it to be hazardous waste for disposal purposes. At this time, however, the Department of Housing and Urban Development is in the process of developing guidelines.

Lead Testing

What should you do about lead? If your home was built prior to the mid-1970s, you should have paint samples (indoors and out) analyzed for lead. And if you have copper plumbing installed prior to 1987, you should have your water tested for lead.

Then, if your paint or water tests turn up lead, have your doctor or health department perform a blood-lead-level test on every member of your family. It’s possible that you aren’t breathing or ingesting a significant amount of lead, even though it’s present in your home. In that case, you’d probably be safer to leave the sources alone; disturbing them may only increase your exposure. Nonetheless, you should then continue to have your blood retested regularly to ensure that unsafe amounts of lead aren’t accumulating in your body.

Lead Removal

If water turns out to be a source of lead in your blood, it’s not difficult, expensive or especially dangerous to replace the lead–soldered lines. There are now non-lead solders for copper pipe, or the metal can be replaced with one of the plastic plumbing pipe systems.

If paint inside your house turns out to be lead-based, however, do not act in haste. In particular, do not attempt to strip it by sanding, by applying chemicals or by heating it.

Lead dust is very fine and very tenacious. Nothing short of a fancy high-efficiency particle filter will remove it. And, in fact, a normal vacuum will only throw the dust into the air, where it can be inhaled.

There are several different approaches to dealing with lead paint, depending on the situation, but the techniques and equipment needed to do the job safely and effectively are beyond the amateur. Hire a qualified lead-abatement contractor (ask for evidence of certification in Maryland) to do it for you–and don’t balk when you’re asked to move out of the house during the process or if he or she suggests such draconian measures as removing affected woodwork entirely.

Health Risks of Asbestos

Largely because of studies finding increased rates of lung cancer and mesotheliomas in shipbuilders handling asbestos (and particularly in those who smoked), the hazards of this material are well known and highly publicized. Unlike the situation with lead, the federal government has taken leadership in setting occupational standards for exposure and in developing guidelines for dealing with asbestos.

Despite the widespread publicity about the dangers posed by asbestos, you probably have little reason to worry about being exposed to dangerous levels of it in your home. Though there are at least some asbestos-containing products in the majority of U.S. homes, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has found that these materials rarely pose a hazard unless they’re disturbed. The cardinal rule with asbestos is to leave it alone unless there’s a good reason to remove it.

Household Sources of Asbestos

Where might you find asbestos? Though it’s no longer used in residential products, there are many existing products that may contain it. Asbestos was used widely from about 1940 well into the 1960s. The most common place to find large amounts of asbestos in a home is as exposed insulation on pipes, furnaces and boilers. However, it may also be present in vinyl flooring materials, wall and ceiling patching compounds and textured paints (banned in 1977), wood- and coal-stove door gaskets, heat shields for woodstoves and coal stoves, fire-retardant sheathing, electrical appliances, automotive brake and clutch linings, roofing and siding materials and other products designed for resistance to intense heat.

How do you know for sure that something contains asbestos? Only by having a sample of the material tested by a laboratory. If your yellow pages are no help, inquire at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for information on testing.

Asbestos Removal

About the only instances where experts recommend removing asbestos are in situations where it’s become very friable (fibers breaking off) and is abraded regularly. At one extreme of these cases is the woodstove gasket, which a homeowner can remove using proper precautions, as described below. At the other end of the scale is the all-too-common situation of decaying insulation on a boiler. This condition should not be handled by a do-it-yourselfer; hire a certified (by your state or the EPA) asbestos abatement professional to determine if removal is necessary and to do the job if needed. Inept attempts to remove asbestos fibers not only will expose the workers to danger but will also litter the air with asbestos fibers for long after the work is finished. You’ll have 20 years of worry as the latency period for lung cancer runs its course.

Removing Gaskets from Woodstove Doors

The goal in asbestos removal is to avoid having fibers get into the air, where they can be breathed. Nonetheless, you should wear a half-face respirator that is ap proved for asbestos (a standard dust mask is not adequate) and arrange for everyone else to be out of the house during the removal. Open the stove’s door, and place a pan underneath it so that any debris that falls will be caught. Thoroughly soak the asbestos with water mixed with detergent, and wet down the pan. Remove the gasket, and place it in doubled plastic bags. If the gasket was installed with furnace cement, it may be difficult to remove. Scrape the surface with a putty knife, keeping the asbestos saturated with the soapy water.

Once the gasket is off, wipe down the stove, the pan and the surrounding area with rags wetted with the water-soap mixture. Dispose of the rags along with the gasket. Seal the bags, and take them to the landfill. Your landfill supervisor may wish to be informed that you’re disposing of asbestos, but a stove gasket is a small enough amount that it will be of minimal concern if handled correctly.

–Stuart Greenberg

Stuart Greenberg is a certified asbestos-removal technician and research director at Environmental Health Watch, a nonprofit information center on hazardous materials, in Cleveland, Ohio.