How to Test Your Oregon Home for Asbestos

When you hear the word asbestos, what comes to mind? Many people think of asbestos hazards as being a thing of the past, or something relegated to big, old buildings like schools. In fact, asbestos was widely used in all types of building, including residential, prior to 1970. And even now, the United States has not fully banned its use. So while your home may be newer, then, there’s still a chance asbestos lurks in the walls, roof, etc.

Before anyone panics, though, know that because it is so common, the state of Oregon has plenty of information and resources on how to manage it. If you’re going to be doing work on your home, you’ll want to know what materials you might be disturbing – and if there’s asbestos in them. We’ve rounded up the best information out there on when and how to safely test your Portland home for asbestos.

What Is Asbestos, and Why Is It Dangerous?

Just as radon is a naturally occurring gas, asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral. So the old wisdom that natural things can’t hurt you won’t apply here! Also just like radon, asbestos can cause illness when it’s released into the air that you breathe. The three main health conditions caused by exposure to asbestos are mesothelioma (a rare form of cancer that attacks membranes), and asbestosis (a non-cancerous respiratory disease), and lung cancer.

Remember our thought experiment at the beginning of this article? A good reason exists why we associate asbestos with schools: young children prove to be one of the most vulnerable population to complications from asbestos exposure. Any households in which young children live or visit should take particular notice.

There is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos. However, there are types of materials that we know to be more dangerous. Asbestos-containing materials are divided into two categories: friable and non-friable. Friable materials are more harmful because they crumble and release asbestos more easily.

Commonly Used Friable Materials Include:

  • Sheet vinyl flooring
  • Popcorn ceilings
  • Mastic
  • Certain types of insulation (not including fiberglass)
  • Gaskets
  • Stucco
  • Sprayed-on sink undercoating

These are only a few friable materials, though (see the Department of Environmental Quality’s full list for more). When left undisturbed, asbestos remains harmless (hence why builders still use it, especially non-friable types). When you start messing around with materials containing it, though, fibers can break up and enter the air. That possibility becomes greater with friable materials. That’s why before starting any renovations, you should know for sure what your home’s status is.

When to Test for Asbestos in Oregon

Point blank, the Oregon DEQ requires asbestos screening for certain construction projects. Namely, all homes constructed prior to January 1st, 2004 must undergo an asbestos survey before demolition or renovation. Now, wait a minute! You might be asking yourself if this applies to just any old remodeling project, however straightforward.

Well, yes, there an exception does exist for just that case. An owner-occupent – meaning someone who both owns and lives in their single unit residence – may conduct renovations to the interior of that residence without an asbestos survey. What this boils down to, to an extent, is what the government doesn’t see doesn’t concern them. Put another way, proceed at your own risk. Want to put in new cabinets? No one is going to come after you demanding to see your asbestos-free paperwork. But if you’re planning any major renovations, even if they’re indoors only, the DEQ still recommends that you have your home tested. Again, there is no know safe level of exposure to asbestos, so if you’re doing any ripping and gutting, better safe than sorry.

How to Test for Asbestos in Oregon

Both the EPA and DEQ both highly recommend that you hire an accredited asbestos inspector to test for asbestos in your home. Having a professional take charge means less risk to you and your household. That being said, if you are the owner-occupant, you may take samples for yourself and send them off to a lab. If that’s the route to choose, DEQ provides the following step-by-step instructions:

  1. Dampen the area with a wet cloth or paper towel. This decreases the chance of asbestos fibers taking to the air.
  2. Isolate the sample you’d like to take, which should be 2″ by 2″. Try not to disturb any more than you absolutely have to to obtain the sample.
  3. Once you’ve got it, store the sample in a clean, air-tight container. A zip-lock bag or small jar will suffice so long as it’s well-sealed. If you’re taking samples of multiple materials, store them each in individual containers.
  4. Use your damp towel to once again wipe down the area and anywhere else the material might have left traces.
  5. Label the container with the date and location where you took it from.
  6. Send the sample to a laboratory for analysis. In January of 2021, the DEQ began requiring that bulk samples (samples from non-homeowner asbestos surveys) be sent to laboratories that participate in a nationally recognized accreditation or testing program. While this isn’t required of you if you want to collect your sample yourself, they still highly recommend that you use an accredited lab. They keep a list for your use here.

What to Do If Your Home Tests Positive for Asbestos

If you’re planning a remodel or renovation and your Portland home tests positive for asbestos, we highly recommend that you use a professional contractor. DEQ also keeps a list of licensed asbestos abatement contractors, who are training in safe removal of dangerous materials.

Again, though, for interior projects, the owner-occupant may choose to remove even friable materials on their own. If you are going to do it on your own, know that you’ve got to dispose of these materials in the same way a contractor would. That includes everything from how you store the waste to contacting the landfill to get approval.

But what if you aren’t planning to do any work on your home? Let’s say you suspect the presence of asbestos but aren’t sure. The best strategy may be to let sleeping dogs lie. If you don’t disturb the materials in the first place, they aren’t likely to pose a health risk. If, though, you begin to notice damage, it might be time to get a professional involved.

June 4, 2021

Stephen FitzMaurice

Stephen FitzMaurice, Realtor is a top 5% real estate agent in the U.S. A Principal Broker in Oregon, Managing Broker in Washington, he has been licensed since 2003 for residential real estate sales. Call his team in Oregon at 503-714-1111 or in Washington at 360-345-3833.

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