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Managing the Hazards of Insulation: Alternatives and Solutions

Bill Baue
Monday, January 02, 2007

Asbestos exposure represents the greatest risk associated with insulation. Luckily, asbestos sealed within insulation poses no risk until it becomes exposed or damaged. To be on the safe side, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advises homeowners to treat all older insulation materials as if they contain asbestos.

 Inspect them visually for wear and tear, not manually, so as to avoid contact with asbestos fibers.

  • If insulation materials appear soft, crumbly or otherwise damaged, asbestos may be exposed. Do not touch it!
  • Instead, contact a professional asbestos inspector to collect and analyze samples for asbestos. A list of laboratories accredited by the EPA can be obtained through your state or local health department, or the National Institute for Standards and Technology Accreditation Program.
    If the samples contain the cancer-causing fibers, you have two options:

Repair means sealing or covering the exposed asbestos. This is a less expensive and safer alternative to removal, which sends the harmful fibers flying. Removal is usually done as a last resort, often in response to state or local regulations. Do-it-yourselfers should not attempt asbestos repair or removal.
Parents should consider moving their family out of the house during asbestos abatement projects. If you choose to stay, minimize the risk of dispersing asbestos dust by making sure that the contractor:

  • turns off heating or cooling systems while the work is performed,
  • seals off the area from the rest of the house, and
  • wets the work area with a water spray.

Afterwards, clean up should be done with a vacuum equipped with a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Arresting) filter, which prevents the asbestos particles from blowing into the air.

Containment is also the key to dealing with fiberglass insulation. Removal of existing fiberglass would pose a greater health risk than leaving it in place and sealing it, says Alex Wilson, executive editor of Environmental Building News.
Make absolutely certain that fiberglass insulation is not exposed to air-handling ductwork, which would blow microscopic glass particles that make up fiberglass into your breathing space. Joints in the ducting should be sealed with mastic, not duct tape, according to Wilson. Air supply ducting is pressurized, making leaks less likely. However, return ducting is not, making leaks that can channel fiberglass and its toxic phenol formaldehyde fumes. The fiberglass insulation industry now addresses these concerns by offering encapsulated batts, which seal the fiberglass behind a layer of polyethylene. Formaldehyde-free insulation is also on the market.

If you plan on installing new insulation, keep the kids away, until the job is done. In addition, Connecticut insulation contractor Bob Kilian, writing in Fine Homebuilding, offers this final advice:

  • Wear a dust mask, or better yet, a respirator;
  • Wear safety goggles to protect eyes from stray glass particles;
  • Cover all exposed skin with long sleeves and pants; and
  • Shower after exposure to insulation.

For More Information:

Asbestos in Your Home, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
EPA Asbestos Ombudsman, Environmental Protection Agency, 800-368-5888.
ATSDR Asbestos Page, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
ToxFAQs for Asbestos, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Mesothelioma Factsheet, American Lung Association
"Insulation Materials: Environmental Comparisons." Environmental Building News.


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Posted by Dennis Ivy  on  04/01/2009  at  03:12 PM

I have a question about my grandson. His father had him up in the attic of their home while he was working in the attic. He became very itchy and coughed all night. He is still coughing. Their house is less than 8 years old. Do you think he may have caused damage? He is only 3 years old.

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