Investigating Asbestos Exposure During Demolition & Renovation - Expert Overview

Since 1978 asbestos has been phased out of use in the U.S., but it has never been legally prohibited. The considerable decline in the use of asbestos in building products can be attributed to litigation concerns. Although rare, asbestos could still be present in small quantities in common building products such as drywall.

In this article, Geologist and Environmental Expert, Brendan Merk discusses the standard of care for performing renovations or demolition in commercial and industrial buildings where asbestos may be found, and the regulations that apply to minimize the risk of exposure.

Investigating Asbestos Exposure During Demolition & Renovation - Expert Overview

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral found in the Earth. People have long valued the thin mineral fibers for their strength, resistance to chemical corrosion, and heat insulation. Due to the material’s strength and resilience, asbestos has been used in large range of home, commercial, and industrial products. It has been used in building products such as cement, plaster, insulation, ceiling and floor tiles, and fire-proofing materials. Basically, anything not made of metal or wood had the potential to contain asbestos.

Asbestos poses no threat to health or safety when encapsulated within products, but problems are known to arise when a material containing asbestos is damaged and the fibers become friable. That is, the fibers are released to the air where they can be inhaled. They are resistant to chemical corrosion, and once in the lung the fibers cannot be broken down. The fibers will stay lodged in the lung indefinitely and can cause scarring of the lungs, lung cancer, and cancer of the lining of the chest, also known as mesothelioma.

Unless proper mitigation efforts are taken, asbestos fibers contained within building materials are known to be released into the air during renovation and demolition work scopes, creating dangerous conditions for construction workers, tenants, and the public. The process of investigating these exposures will vary across different projects, but often includes the following components:

PERMITTING: The rules involved with renovation and demolition activities can be complex, but most jurisdictions will require a building permit for such projects. An inspection typically occurs as part of the permitting process, and can be helpful in identifying potential sources of asbestos and the steps needed to mitigate the risk.

TESTING: Even if a building permit is not required there are still state and federal laws regarding asbestos. In a forensic investigation, part of the process is to determine if the parties involved hired a certified inspection company to test the building materials. Also as part of the testing process, physical samples are taken from every kind of building material on the project site and sent to a laboratory for analysis. Any material that contains over one percent asbestos is regulated. It does not matter if the building was constructed in 2020 or 1920, the rules for testing are the same.

ABATEMENT: If asbestos was identified during the testing process, the forensic investigation may require an analysis of abatement efforts to ensure that proper measures were taken before work began. The rules vary by location, but in most instances a licensed abatement company is hired to properly remove and dispose of the asbestos materials. The work area is closed off, using engineering controls to ensure that asbestos fibers are not released, and the workers are required to wear personal protective equipment (PPE). Where possible, the asbestos containing materials will be wetted to help prevent fibers from becoming airborne.

RETESTING: Once the asbestos is removed and the area is cleaned, air testing will be conducted to ensure that the environment is safe. This is a necessary component of ensuring environmental safety. A review of testing procedures is typical in a forensic investigation.

Consequences of Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos fibers cannot be seen, smelled, or otherwise detected by human senses, which reinforces the importance of testing. After they are released, asbestos fibers can stay airborne for many days, potentially exposing anyone who enters the building. Once lodged in the lungs, those fibers never exit the body. Ignoring the dangers of asbestos can put workers, employees, tenants, and the public at an increased risk for long-term health effects.

Building owners either know or should know the hazards within their structure that more likely than not create dangerous conditions. There is an obligation to take reasonable care in building maintenance, and a duty to warn persons who may be affected by hazardous conditions.

Asbestos Exposure Investigations

The environmental experts at Robson Forensic are engaged when industry safeguards break down and individuals or the environment are exposed to hazardous materials. The scope of our investigations varies from case to case but can include a thorough review of commercial and industrial processes, storage and transportation protocols, disposal procedures, incident response, remediation plans, and much more.

To discuss your case with an expert, call us at 800.813.6736 or submit an inquiry.