The Hazards of Hazardous Material Surveys

When properties change hands, or when a commercial property requires renovation, environmental due diligence reports are used to confirm the property’s condition. Among the possible investigations is a Hazardous Materials Survey.


At issue is whether there are any hazardous materials on the property from past or current uses, or from past or current construction practices. For example, if a property was built before 1978, it may contain lead-based paint, which must be disclosed, if not removed. If the building was built before 1980, it may contain asbestos, a potentially lethal substance that may require extensive construction protocols if the material is to be disturbed or removed. Mold is another hazardous material that is of concern in environments with high humidity or moisture, and in buildings with older ventilation systems such as San Francisco.


Hazardous Material Surveys are required when more than 100 square feet of a structure deemed to have hazardous materials is going to be disturbed or demolished. Performing a Hazardous Material Survey is a good idea in most older buildings that haven’t been renovated in recent years. Even buildings that have been renovated after 1980 may contain toxic materials that were left undisturbed by previous owners to avoid onerous construction regulations. The fact is that if hazardous materials are disturbed inadvertently and without compliant construction practices, the owner is liable for any added costs and any health-related damages to workers or occupants. Not what you want!


It is rarely a good idea to assume that a property has no hazardous materials, especially in a region like the bay area where many communities have large, decades-old residential and commercial properties. A good environmental due diligence consultant will look for any signs of toxic risks during an ESA Phase I investigation, the most basic report required by regulators and lenders. However, a full hazardous materials inspection is not a required part of the ESA Phase I, and if the due diligence survey is done by an inexperienced inspector, or by a firm driven to reduce costs to protect their own profits, they may miss the signs of mold, lead, asbestos or other dangerous substances on the property.


A little-known fact is that even if a building was built after 1980, it may still contain hazardous materials including asbestos. While asbestos building materials were banned in the U.S. in 1980, many asbestos-containing materials are still legally available including vinyl floor tile, roofing material, and cement mixes. These are the types of things your environment due diligence consultant should know about to protect you and your real estate assets.


Materials like lead, mold and asbestos usually don’t announce themselves and are often hidden in the recesses of buildings, or under layers of subsequent renovation and refinishing. If you or your consultant don’t know what to look for, toxic materials might easily be overlooked.


The starting point for qualifying an environmental due diligence consultant is to make sure they have the required state and federal certifications to inspect the material in question. Asbestos investigations, for example, can only be carried out by technicians that are Certified Asbestos Consultants. A second and perhaps more meaningful step in the qualification process is to ask what kind of experience they have detecting these materials where they were not expected to be present.


Essel Environmental Engineering and Consulting has all of the required certifications to inspect and test for hazardous materials and has years of experience performing environmental due diligence in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. We are registered with Cal/OSHA and all inspections are performed in accordance with EPA guidelines. Our engineers look deeply into buildings’ conditions when issuing reports, going well beyond the letter of the law to ensure building owners and property managers are fully informed and protected.