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Dear Angie: How can I tell if a house still has or once had asbestos?

Beth S., Redondo Beach, Calif.

Dear Beth: The only reliable way to know if your home contains asbestos is to hire an environmental consulting firm or asbestos building inspector. They’ll take fingernail-sized samples and test them in a laboratory.

You can’t see or smell asbestos, but exposure to loose fibers can cause lung disease. The naturally occurring, flame-retardant mineral fibers are too small to identify without a microscope, so don’t believe anyone who claims you have asbestos, but hasn’t done testing.

Inspection and testing costs range from $100 to $750, depending on how many areas you want an inspector to check and how easy it is to collect samples.

It’s trickier to be certain if your home ever contained asbestos. Most often, you won’t know unless someone disclosed the information or you’ve checked the original building documents. However, signs that a home may have contained asbestos include:

An outline of old flooring tiles in a 9-by-9-inch pattern. Most floor tiles of this size used asbestos.

Pipes that aren’t insulated, but have white or gray insulation remnants, particularly on the fittings.

It’s possible to find asbestos in almost any area of a home, and the older a home, the higher the risk that asbestos lurks somewhere. Many homes built 20 or more years ago contain asbestos, so you’d be wise to arrange an asbestos survey before a home project that might disturb possible asbestos. Such a survey, which should be done by a professional trained in best practices regarding asbestos, can cost from $250 to $500.

However, if materials suspected of containing asbestos are in good condition and won’t be damaged or disturbed, it’s best to leave them alone. That’s because asbestos is not hazardous if fibers are encapsulated or otherwise unable to be released. Concern focuses on friable asbestos. Friable material crumbles easily and breaks down into particles that could be inhaled. Widely used products that may contain friable asbestos include insulation, acoustical plaster, paper products and spackling compound.

Examples of nonfriable materials include siding, floor tiles and roofing products. However, these can still be a risk, such as when a nonfriable material is sawed or sanded, thereby releasing small particles.

Some asbestos services companies cover the cost of testing and inspection if you choose to hire them for abatement, the term used for removing, encapsulating or otherwise rendering your home free of any health threat from asbestos. However, because of conflict-of-interest concerns, it’s illegal in some states for the same company to both test and abate asbestos. Removal costs vary, depending on the size of the abatement area, but jobs typically range from $300 to $3,500. In addition, most states require abatement contractors to obtain permits before performing work, and permits can cost from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

Asbestos abatement requires specialized methods of containing the area, removing materials and ensuring no contamination.

The federal government, as well as some local and state governments, provides training courses for asbestos professionals. When hiring an asbestos service, ask for proof of EPA-approved or state training. Local and state health departments may be able to provide listings of licensed professionals.

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