If you suspect your house contains asbestos, you should take the following steps, which have been suggested by home inspectors, health officials and researchers from the Consumer Product Safety Commission:
Make sure the material is asbestos.
Generally, the older your house, the greater the possibility that asbestos was used as an insulator. Houses that have steam or hot water radiators may have pipes insulated with asbestos--wrapped around the pipes--which looks somewhat like gray, corrugated cardboard bound with a cheesecloth-like material. Boiler covers often are insulated with asbestos, and occasionally loose attic insulation contains asbestos.
If you aren't sure whether or not the material is asbestos, you can ask a home inspector, a heating contractor or a local environmental health official to examine it, or you can have a sample of the material analyzed by a local testing firm, usually for under $50. Specialists say it is virtually impossible to monitor asbestos levels in the house.
* Encapsulate any asbestos that could create harmful dust, using one of several sealing methods. Removal should be a last resort, commission officials say. Asbestos experts agree that removal and encapsulation should be done with extreme care to avoid spreading the fibers thoughout the house. Vacuuming asbestos is useless, says one commission official, because the microscopic fibers can escape from the average sweeper collection bag.
Finding qualified contractors to take care of asbestos is a major problem. "One thing we don't know is how many building contractors are geared up for removal," said product safety official Hugh Spitzer. Removal or encapsulation can be expensive. New Jersey asbesto specialist Frank Genty said he charges from several hundred dollars to $1,500 for home jobs.
For names of qualified firms and for other advice related to asbestos problems, residents should call their local health departments: in Montgomery County 468-4071. In Prince George's County 794-6800.
Arlington County residents can call their environmental health department at 558-2661, in Fairfax County at 451-7783. In the District, residents can call the Bureau of Occupational and Institutional Hygiene at 724-4358. Homeowners also can call the Consumer Product Safety Commission hotline at 492-8363.