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Asbestos Testing and Surveying

Asbestos Testing

Why Test for Asbestos?

Until the early 1980s, asbestos was very common in a number of construction materials, some of which still remain in both residential and commercial buildings. Unfortunately, materials containing asbestos cannot be reliably identified by simple visual inspection unless they are clearly labeled. The asbestos content of these building materials can easily become airborne if the materials become damaged, especially during renovation. While finding contaminated building materials is becoming somewhat less common, it is still very important to get questionable materials professionally tested before doing demolition work that could liberate dust and airborne asbestos fibers.

Is Asbestos Really Dangerous Enough to Bother with Testing?

Yes! Asbestos is known to cause several life-threatening conditions:

  • Lung Cancer: Irritation of the lining of the lungs causes an increase in the likelihood of lung cancer, especially among smokers.
  • Mesothelioma: Mesothelioma is a rare but deadly form of cancer that occurs in the mesothelium, a membrane that covers many organs in the body. Because the asbestos fibers penetrate deep into the body to reach these membranes around the lungs, abdominal cavity, or even the testes, the onset of this deadly disease usually does not occur until at least 15 years after exposure.
  • Asbestosis: Even if asbestos exposure doesn’t cause cancer, the fibers can cause irreversible scarring and chronic inflammation of the lungs known as asbestosis. This scar tissue makes breathing difficult, and oxygen absorption is severely hindered.

While asbestosis is generally associated with high levels of asbestos exposure over an extended period of time, lung cancer and mesothelioma can be caused by a much lower amount of exposure. Luckily, undamaged materials that do contain asbestos are generally safe to leave in place. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines now recommend that materials suspected to contain asbestos should be left alone if they are undamaged and still in good condition, so testing is generally only necessary when the material in question is already damaged or will be damaged during demolition and removal.

What Is Involved in an Asbestos Test?

The first step in having a suspect material tested for asbestos contamination is taking a representative sample of the material. This is probably the most dangerous part of the testing procedure, as it requires intentionally damaging the material to be tested. It is possible for homeowners and do-it-yourselfers to take a sample on their own, but doing so increases the likelihood of fiber exposure. If you opt to take a sample yourself, you do so at your own risk, and should take appropriate safety precautions. At a minimum, you should don gloves, safety glasses, a long-sleeve shirt, long pants, and a respirator equipped with a true HEPA filter.

The material to be tested is generally wet down slightly with a mild solution of soapy water. This acts as a check on the formation dust and prevents asbestos fibers from potentially becoming airborne. A representative piece of the material is then removed. An appropriate sample will include the full matrix of the material to be tested. For example, “popcorn” ceiling texture samples should include the underlying scratch coat, floor tile samples should include the underlying mastic, etc.

Once the sample is collected, it is placed in a clean container that will not pose a risk of releasing the materials inside. Asbestos testing companies will provide an appropriate container during sampling, or homeowners taking their own sample can obtain an appropriate container in an asbestos testing kit that a number of home-improvement stores carry. Once the sample is sealed inside the container, it is sent off to a certified lab for appropriate testing to be carried out.

What Does Asbestos Testing Cost?

The majority of the cost of asbestos testing is the charge for taking the sample. Having a certified professional do asbestos sampling on-site can cost in the neighborhood of $250-$750 per sample. This cost should include laboratory fees for the actual testing process, as well as covering safe cleanup of the area where the sample was taken. The cleanup process involves using wet mopping and genuine HEPA filter vacuum cleaners to prevent sending asbestos particles flying into the air and creating a hazardous environment within the building.

If a homeowner is willing to accept the risk of taking their own samples, the cost of sampling drops significantly. Home testing kits such as the Pro-Lab are available online and at a number of home-improvement stores for under $10. The kit comes with an appropriate sampling container and instructions for taking the sample. The sealed container is then mailed to the company’s accredited laboratory along with a $30 lab fee for analysis.

Asbestos Surveying

What Is Asbestos Surveying?

When an entire building or an area of a building needs to be examined to determine if there is asbestos present, an complete examination is performed by a qualified asbestos surveyor. If the asbestos survey report indicates any areas in which there is contamination present, an appropriate abatement or management strategy needs to be enacted.

Because asbestos in undamaged building materials is generally safe when left undisturbed, whole-building asbestos surveys are usually not done in the United States unless a building has suffered major damage, is pending a major renovation, or is set to be demolished. In the United Kingdom, however, a full asbestos survey is required by law for many commercial and residential properties.

How Much Does an Asbestos Survey Cost?

The cost of an asbestos survey varies by the size of the area to be surveyed and the number of materials that must be tested. With the high cost of having even a single sample tested, though, the cost of a full asbestos survey is likely to be at least several thousand dollars. Due to the high cost of asbestos surveying, a building owner should speak to a knowledgeable building inspector for professional advice on whether or not the building will require a full survey. If a survey is necessary, many asbestos inspection companies will perform a free quote for the job.