ASBESTOS — IT’S STILL A PROBLEM
16 years ago
By Leah Beth Ward Yakima Herald-Republic
SELAH — Deborah and Scott Hanna were doing what lots of people do in the spring: They began a home-improvement project and started with a bedroom ceiling.
Ugh. “It was so dirty,” Deborah Hanna said. “So we tore it down.” Big mistake. The “popcorn” ceiling dating from 1977 was full of asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral that separates into very thin but strong fibers. As a heat and corrosion-resistant material, asbestos was the darling of the building industry for decades until its sinister side was discovered. The fibers pose a danger when they become airborne and lodge in the lungs. Over time, exposure can lead to asbestosis, a scarring of the lung tissue that can make breathing difficult. Another risk is mesothelioma, cancer that occurs in the lining around many internal organs. Local contracting and cleanup experts say they run across asbestos routinely in home and commercial remodeling projects, even though its use in textured paint and patching compounds was banned in 1977. “We see it quite a bit,” said Joe Walkenhauer, a longtime Yakima contractor who is semiretired from Sun Professional Services, which cleans up asbestos. “The popcorn ceiling is one people should stay away from,” he said, referring to a technique popular in the ‘70s of texturing with a lumpy, asbestos-rich spray. Asbestos is often thought to be a problem of the past, something the federal government took care of decades ago.
But that’s a misconception, according to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who has spent six years pushing for an all-out ban on the product. It continues to be legally used in certain industrial and consumer products, such as brake pads, which can pose a hazard to mechanics. In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency tried to ban asbestos, but some of those regulations were overturned in a 1991 court ruling.
Last month, Murray reintroduced her Ban Asbestos in America Act of 2007, which would prohibit the manufacture, importation, processing and distribution of products containing the product. While exposure at work -- pipefitting, ship-building -- is most common, Murray said in a statement that homeowners doing renovation projects aren’t immune. As many as 35 million homes and businesses may have insulation made with harmful minerals, according to her office.
The Hannas didn’t know what they had as they scraped their ceiling with putty knives. It might have been OK if they had wetted down the ceiling first, which would have kept the fibers from flying loose. “But I thought it was just like taking down wallpaper,” Deborah Hanna said. Then one day she was talking about the project with colleagues at lunch -- she’s a nurse -- when someone suggested the crumbling material might be asbestos.
A laboratory confirmed the material was asbestos, forcing the Hannas and their four kids to live with relatives. “We had done everything you weren’t supposed to,” she says now. “We vacuumed, kept the vents open from the heater, had kids in the house.”
Hanna feels reasonably sure that her family didn’t inhale enough of the fibers to cause immediate problems. But she was surprised to discover in casual conversations that many people with popcorn ceilings don’t know they likely contain asbestos.
This week, IRS Environmental of TriCities began cleaning up the Hanna home. After more than a month in temporary quarters, they’re anxious to move back in.
But even when the cleanup is finished, the Hannas still have to take everything they own out of the house and clean or dispose of it. Their insurance company won’t cover the cost of more than $3,000, saying they caused the problem. Hanna could have kept quiet about her home’s exposure to asbestos fibers. Many homeowners getting ready to sell aren’t so honest, according to Walkenhauer. “The law says if you know you have it, you have to disclose it. But most people who know they’ve got it won’t tell anybody,” he said. Still, Hanna wants to keep other do-it-yourselfers safe. “I’m the kind of person that I have to tell people about this,” she said.
- Leah Beth Ward can be reached at 577-7626 or [email protected].
- You can’t tell whether a material contains asbestos by looking at it unless it’s labeled.
- If in doubt, treat it as asbestos and have it sampled and analyzed by a qualified professional.
- Individual homeowners who want to clean up their own asbestos are exempt from state training and certification requirements, but must comply with proper disposal practices. For more information, contact the Yakima Regional Clean Air Authority in Room 1016 at 6 S. Second St., Yakima. Call 834-2050 or fax 834-2060.