Home renovations trend raising risk of toxic asbestos exposure

A new WorkSafeBC campaign is cautioning homeowners undertaking renovations and demolitions that could release deadly asbestos in homes built before 1990.

Homes built before 1990 could have asbestos in materials that can be disturbed during renovations

A new WorkSafeBC campaign is asking homeowners to use caution when renovating older homes as it could disturb asbestos, which can be found in a wide range of old products including drywall mud. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

While television, internet tutorials and a robust do-it-yourself culture make home renovation more appealing than ever, a new WorkSafeBC campaign is telling homeowners to hit pause before proceeding.

That's because houses built before 1990 may have been built with a wide range of materials containing deadly asbestos and renovations can release the toxic fibre into the air.

Al Johnson, the vice-president of prevention services at WorkSafeBC, told CBC's The Early Edition asbestos was used in many different ways in older homes — in pipe insulation, vinyl tile, linoleum, textured ceilings, wiring and spray insulation.

Asbestos, a tough fibrous mineral, was used in many building products before 1990 because it is resistant to fire and heat, good at absorbing sound, and cheap to use. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

"That asbestos, in those materials when left alone, is okay. It's not going to harm you and it's not going to come out of that material," he explained.

"But if you disturb the material and if you break it into smaller pieces — like what you do in a demolition or renovation — that's when those fibres can be released into the air."

Breathing in asbestos fibres can cause lung scarring and in extreme cases a deadly form of lung cancer called mesothelioma.

Tracy Ford, the co-founder of the Asbestos Related Research, Education and Advocacy Fund, described how her father — an electrician who worked in pulp and paper mill — succumbed to the disease.

"There are no cures. They tried to prolong his life through chemotherapy and he actually had surgery to remove the lining of his lungs. They gave him about a year to live and he lived about 16 months. It was a difficult 16 months for everyone and there wasn't quality of life."

Left, Al Johnson, the vice-president of prevention services for WorkSafeBC, and right, Tracy Ford, the co-founder of the Asbestos Related Research, Education and Advocacy Fund. (Roshini Nair/CBC)

Johnson said it is important for homeowners to exercise caution before proceeding and have a qualified professional test their house for asbestos. If asbestos is found, he said, have a qualified team remove it safely.

"If you know what's there you can protect yourself," Ford said. "You can have it properly removed or you can change your renovation plans and actually not remove it."

Homeowners interested in renovating their homes can visit thinkasbestos.com for more information.

With files from The Early Edition


To listen to the interview, click on the link labelled Home renovations of older homes could release asbestos