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Dealing with Asbestos


The best thing to do about asbestos? Leave it alone — if the structure is safe.

That was one of the takeaways from the SPECS session, “Hazardous Building Materials Among Us.”

Asbestos was a mainstay in both commercial and residential buildings for decades because, simply put, it was a cheap and readily available lifesaver, explained speaker Michael Ebel, VP and principal scientist at Amec Foster Wheeler.

“It was known as the ‘Miracle Mineral,’ heat-resistant, chemical-resistant, corrosion-resistant, and a poor electrical conductor,” Ebel said.

Asbestos, of course, progressed from lifesaving to life-threatening when it was found to be the sole cause of mesothelioma, a cancer that usually doesn’t manifest itself until 20 to 40 years following asbestos inhalation. Since the 1970s, asbestos has been banned from use in pipe insulation, drywall joint compound, spray-applied surfacing and block insulation for boilers and hot water tanks.

Yet asbestos still is present in many old structures, and retailers opening urban outlets in landmark structures can’t help but confront the problematic material in their renovations. Ebel’s prescription for them was clear-cut.

“The best thing you can do is nothing. If the structure is sound, the safest thing is to leave it alone,” he said.

The Environmental Protection Agency requires a “thorough inspection” prior to any renovations or demolitions, and Ebel warned that the agency or state or municipal authorities might request documentation that a property is free of ACM (asbestos-containing materials). He advised buyers to demand that proof from sellers before closing on the purchase of commercial properties.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, too, requires assumptions be made by both building owners and employers in communicating ACM hazards to employees. It should be noted, however, that while mesothelioma is nearly always lethal, it is also rare. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 18,068 mesothelioma-related deaths were reported between 1999 and 2005 in the U.S. — a rate of 14-in-a-million.

The EPA suggests two basic ways to deal with the presence of asbestos, the first being in line with Ebel’s thinking on the matter. As long as the ACM is in good condition, the EPA recommends it be “managed in place” by enclosing the ACM in a permanent air-tight barrier or applying liquid to exposed asbestos to encapsulate it.

Though other safety hazards such as lead-based paint, mercury and mold can present problems to building owners and tenants, none of these are as potentially problematic as asbestos, according to Ebel, who presented the following guidelines to landlords and retail tenants at SPECS:

  • Be aware of federal, state and local regulations;

  • Acquaint yourself with the local regulatory atmosphere (inspectors in big cities like New York can be especially demanding, Ebel warned);

  • Ensure transparency and compliance at all levels;

  • Make sure all contractors and consultants are properly licensed, certified or accredited;

  • Use a means-and-methods or performance-based specification plan and follow it;

  • Consider full-time, on-site management (required in some states); and

  • Have insurance.

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