Asbestos — Should YOU be Concerned?

The word “asbestos” is likely to strike fear into the heart of any property manager or owner considering a major building renovation. Litigation for damages due to asbestos exposure has been going on for decades due to the serious health impacts from asbestos contact, some of which only surface years after the initial exposure.

Once heralded as a miracle building material, asbestos refers to a group of minerals found in rock and soil. Asbestos was regularly used in construction products prior to 1980 because of its fire and heat resistance, tensile strength, and acoustic absorption capabilities. Unfortunately, the material has been found to cause serious respiratory illness and lethal forms of cancer mostly through inhaling the fibers through dust and debris.

The U.S. EPA requires an asbestos survey prior to renovation for buildings built before 1980. If any asbestos is found in the area to be renovated, strict construction regulations kick in, including the requirement that only an asbestos certified contractor can be used for the renovations. This is all spelled out in the EPA’s National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants: Asbestos (Asbestos NESHAP) [40 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 61, Subpart M], for those who want to know.

The asbestos NESHAP states that the owner or operator of a demolition or renovation activity and prior to the commencement of the demolition or renovation will thoroughly inspect the affected facility or part of the facility where the demolition or renovation operation will occur for the presence of asbestos.

That means you, if you are the property owner or manager carrying out a renovation project, are responsible for the accuracy and completeness of the inspection.

Asbestos surveys can only be conducted by a Certified Asbestos Consultant (CAC). Any material found on the property that might contain asbestos must be sampled and tested at an accredited laboratory.

The liability for asbestos can be financially devastating. It is extremely important that surveys be conducted by a CAC that has the experience to look beyond the basics for signs of asbestos in older buildings and in some cases at new buildings as well.

For example, after asbestos construction regulations were imposed, many property owners decided against renovating or removing asbestos containing materials due to the cost of compliance. In some cases, they covered walls and insulation containing asbestos with another layer of material instead. This means that asbestos may be lurking well beneath the surface of a building, and could well go undetected in a survey.

Another common misunderstanding surrounding asbestos is the assumption that asbestos has been banned in the United States since 1980. Not so. Specific construction materials have been banned, but many materials containing asbestos are still available in the U.S. market. A 1991 appeals court overturned a large portion of the 1980 asbestos regulations. As a result, the following products are still allowed in the U.S. even if they contain asbestos:

  • Vinyl-asbestos floor tile
  • Roofing felt and coatings
  • Asbestos-cement products (corrugated and flat sheets, shingles, pipe)
  • Asbestos clothing
  • Pipeline wrap
  • Millboard
  • Gaskets
  • Non-roofing coating

This means that it is important to look beyond old pipes and insulation for asbestos on new and old properties alike. Unfortunately, just because an environmental consultant has been certified to inspect for asbestos, the firm may not have the experience needed to identify all possible sources.

In San Francisco, with the fourth largest number of buildings built before 1980 in the nation, asbestos is an ongoing concern for property managers. It is important to ask a potential consultant if they are aware of some of these less common sources of asbestos and other hazardous materials.

Essel Environmental Engineering and Consulting has Certified Asbestos Consultants and surveillance technicians with years of experience conducting surveys in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. We are registered with Cal/OSHA and all inspections are performed in accordance with EPA guidelines, and we are qualified to perform full Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) and Asbestos National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAPS) surveys.