Asbestos in Homes and Schools

Asbestos can still be found in some homes, schools, and other buildings. What do you need to know?

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It's still fairly common to find asbestos in homes, schools, and other buildings -- even though it's an undisputed fact that asbestos causes mesothelioma, lung cancer, and other serious health problems. Many homeowners and parents have more questions than they do facts concerning asbestos in homes and schools. What is asbestos exactly? Where are you likely to find it in the home or in a school? Maybe most important, are there steps you can take to protect yourself and your children from harm caused by asbestos exposure? Read on for the answers.

Where Can Asbestos Be Found?

Asbestos is the common name for six different fibrous minerals that occur naturally in the environment. Thanks to its durability and resistance to heat and flame, asbestos has been used in the construction of homes, schools, and other buildings for decades. Specifically, asbestos may still be found in:

  • insulation
  • ceilings
  • soundproofing
  • roofing
  • textured paint
  • vinyl tiles
  • oil and coal furnaces
  • hot water and steam pipes
  • woodburning stoves, and
  • decorative materials.

Asbestos in Homes and Schools: Health Risks

Because asbestos occurs naturally in the air, most people breathe in trace amounts of it each day. The health risks from asbestos mainly come about when a significant amount of the fibrous material is inhaled. When it comes to asbestos in homes, schools, and other buildings, that means the dangers from asbestos don't typically crop up unless materials that contain asbestos are worn out, cut into, or damaged in some other way -- or if a building is being torn down or undergoing significant renovation. Once that happens, there's a much greater chance that asbestos fibers will be released into the air, which is when the risk of deadly asbestos-related diseases can arise. 

Asbestos-related illnesses include:

  • mesothelioma -- a form of cancer in the tissue that lines the chest and abdomen (for more information, see Nolo's article Mesothelioma: Treatment, Symptoms, and Causes)
  • asbestosis (lung inflammation and scarring)
  • lung cancer, and
  • gastrointestinal and colorectal cancers.

Asbestos Exposure in Homes and Schools: Minimize the Risk

What steps can homeowners take if they're concerned about the presence of asbestos in their home? And what are school districts required to do when it comes to inspecting for -- and in some cases removing -- asbestos materials in school buildings? 

Asbestos in homes. The most important thing to remember about asbestos in your home is that its mere presence does not usually pose a health risk. But if asbestos-containing material (like tiles or insulation, for example) become damaged or worn, you need to take action.

There are professional companies that are expert at assessing the health dangers of asbestos in the home -- including testing unlabeled materials to see if they contain asbestos, since it isn't always easy to tell. These companies can recommend a course of action for fixing asbestos-related problems and reducing health risks. Remedies can include outright removal of asbestos-containing materials or the more cost-effective option of "encasement" -- the asbestos remains in place but is sealed or covered up.

Remember, since the real danger comes when asbestos material is damaged or disturbed -- so that asbestos fibers are released into the air -- if you're planning a remodel of your home such as replacing a ceiling or tearing up floors, it's a good idea to have an experienced professional inspect your home for asbestos before any work gets started. (Learn more about finding and hiring asbestos professionals in Nolo's article Asbestos Professionals: Should You Hire One?)

Asbestos in schools. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires school districts to inspect all classrooms and other school buildings for the presence of asbestos. Schools also must fix most instances where asbestos-containing material (a ceiling, for example) is damaged, worn, or otherwise posing a potential health problem. But that doesn't mean that school districts are required to remove asbestos from school buildings (they're not). EPA's asbestos program for schools is focused on managing and remedying asbestos-containing materials "in-place," meaning encasement of potentially dangerous asbestos in most cases and removal only in rare instances.

To learn more about school districts' responsibilities when it comes to asbestos in school buildings and facilities, check out "Asbestos in Schools" on the EPA's official website at www.epa.gov/asbestos/pubs/asbestos_in_schools.html.

Lawsuits for Exposure to Asbestos in Homes and Schools

Here are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to lawsuits over asbestos found in homes, schools, and other buildings.

What legal theories are available to me? Generally speaking, if someone suffers from health problems that are caused by asbestos products and materials that were used in the construction of a building, a lawsuit would probably be based on a legal theory called product liability. To learn more about these kinds of cases, read Nolo's Product Liability FAQ.

In addition, homeowners may be able to bring a separate legal claim if the presence of asbestos lowers their property's value or means that unexpected renovation work is required. To learn more about hidden defects in homes, check out Nolo's article Bought a Home with Defects: Who's Responsible?  

You can learn more about these kinds of asbestos cases in Nolo's article Asbestos and Mesothelioma Lawsuits: What to Expect.

Finding a lawyer. If you're serious about filing a lawsuit over the presence of asbestos in a home or school (or over resulting health problems), you may want to talk with an attorney who has experience handling asbestos and mesothelioma cases. Remember that most asbestos-related lawsuits are handled on contingency, meaning that you don't pay for anything -- including the initial consultation -- and your attorney takes a percentage (typically 25% to 40%) of any kind of compensation you receive.

You can use Nolo's Lawyer Directory to find and speak with an asbestos or mesothelioma attorney near you. And for more information on getting an attorney's help with these kinds of cases, check out Nolo's article How to Hire a Mesothelioma or Asbestos Lawyer.

by: , J.D.

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