Can I force my landlord to test for asbestos?

Learn tenant rights when it comes to asbestos health hazards.

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Question

 I’m concerned about that the “cottage cheese” ceilings in my apartment contain asbestos. Can I force my landlord to test for asbestos?

Answer

It depends. Read on to learn your options.

Buildings constructed before 1980 often contain asbestos insulation around heating systems, in ceilings, and in other areas. Asbestos that is intact (or covered up) is generally not a problem, and the current wisdom is to leave it in place but monitor it for signs of deterioration. However, asbestos that has begun to break down and enter the air—for example, when it is disturbed during maintenance or renovation work—can become a significant health problem to people who breathe it.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires landlords to comply with asbestos testing and protective rules when the landlord undertakes a major remodeling or renovation job of a pre-1981 building, as well as when the landlord undertakes lesser projects, such as preparing an asbestos-containing ceiling for repainting. See the asbestos section of the OSHA website for these rules and useful resources. If your landlord is not doing any maintenance or renovation work that would affect your ceiling, these rules would not be applicable. OSHA regulations do not specifically address the measures that a landlord must take to protect tenants from exposure to asbestos, and there are no landlord disclosures regarding asbestos in rental units.

If your ceiling is deteriorating, and pieces are breaking off and becoming airborne (absent any maintenance or remodeling work that would be covered by OSHA asbestos rules), and your apartment building was built before 1980, ask your landlord, in writing, to have the material inspected by a trained asbestos professional as soon as possible. See Nolo’s Sample Letter to Landlord: Deteriorating Asbestos, as a model in preparing your own.

If your landlord refuses to pay for testing, you may have to pursue other options to assure your rights to safe and livable rental housing. The Nolo article Tenant Rights to a Livable Place provides details.  If you decide to arrange an asbestos inspection on your own, see the Nolo article Asbestos Professionals: Should You Hire One?  

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