With real estate being so hot in Vancouver, renovations and demolitions are a common occurrence, but many homeowners are unaware that they may be exposing themselves, their families and the workers they hire to the dangers of asbestos.
“Asbestos was used in more than 3,000 building products over the many years it was used in construction,” said Kenny Gemmill, a general contractor who owns Kits Construction and Development in Vancouver.
“It can be anywhere. Homeowners who have a house that was built before 1990 have to be cognizant of the fact their house may contain asbestos.” he said.
Asbestos was a popular building material for decades because of its fire retardant properties, but the microscopic fibres it releases when disturbed become airborne and can cause long-term damage to the lungs. Diseases like asbestosis or lung cancer can appear decades later.
“You can find it in your roofing; you can find it in your exterior siding; you can find it in vinyl floors, in drywall mud and drywall tape. You can find it in your duct work tape. It’s a long list,” explained Gemmill.
Al Johnson, Vice-President of Prevention Services at WorkSafeBC, said that asbestos in the home can be perfectly safe if it’s left where it is, but can become dangerous when it is disturbed through renovation or demolition work. That’s when people need to take the necessary steps to contain it and safely remove it.
“We’re not trying to frighten homeowners by saying if you have a house built in the 70s, you likely have asbestos in it and you’re going to be exposed. That’s not our message. If you’re going to disturb those products that contain asbestos that’s when you might be exposed. That’s where you need to take the precautions,” he said.
Johnson said that before homeowners undertake any renovations, no matter how small, they should hire a company to test for the presence of asbestos prior to when the work begins.
“Get it tested,” he said. “You can’t see asbestos; you can’t smell asbestos. The fibres are so small they are invisible to the naked eye. If you breathe in asbestos it’s not like breathing in chlorine or ammonia. It doesn’t make you cough or make your eyes water. You don’t even know you’re being exposed. The only way you can determine whether there is asbestos in that piece of floor tile or in that pipe insulation is to have a sample taken to a laboratory.”
WorkSafeBC doesn’t maintain a list of asbestos testing or removal companies, but Johnson says they are easy enough to find on the internet or in business directories. He did note that his organization offers a list of questions on their thinkasbestos.com website that people can ask prospective companies to make sure they are qualified for the job.
“It’s like many trade industries, whether it be roofing or asbestos work,” he said. “You have to ask those questions to make sure the contractor is doing what they need to do.”
Gemmill said that there are plenty of do-it-yourselfers who might be tempted to try to remove the asbestos-containing materials, but urged them to hire a professional.
“Everyone’s on a budget,” he said. “Building or renovating a home is not cheap these days. If they can save a buck, some people will, but that’s the scary part. The homeowner or the contractor is not just exposing himself, he’s exposing everyone who’s working after him.”
Johnson said that at the very least, do-it-yourselfers should hire professionals to deal with all asbestos testing and removal so they can then do the rest of the work on their own.
“Ensure the health of yourself and your family by doing it right if you’re going to do it yourself,” he said. “When it comes to asbestos, it’s not just a matter of going to a hardware store and buying a paper mask and you think you’re going to be safe. Asbestos fibres are so small they will go right through that paper mask. Don’t kid yourself.”
“Hire a qualified contractor to do that little bit of work for you. Have them remove that floor tile or that piece of pipe insulation then you do the rest of the reno. Let them deal with asbestos issues,” he said.
Most people may not be aware, but asbestos is the number one killer of workers in British Columbia.
“There are more asbestos-related deaths than any other type of death in the workplace in British Columbia today,” said Johnson. “Those deaths are caused by exposures that happened many years ago because with asbestos, if you are exposed today, you won’t get sick tomorrow, but you may develop a disease 20, 30, 40 or 50 years later because it has a long latency period.”
By talking with your building contractor about asbestos before any work is done, you’re helping prevent people from contracting these diseases decades from now.
“We’re asking homeowners to talk to their contractor about asbestos before work begins,” said Johnson. “Have that conversation. The contractor will either know what to do or will find out what they need to do to deal with asbestos safely and then hopefully we can prevent those exposures from occurring.”