Risks of Asbestos Exposure in Older Apartments

Awareness & Research

Living in older apartment buildings in the U.S. may put you at higher risk of asbestos exposure. Asbestos, a natural mineral, was a popular building material because of its resistance to heat, electricity, and corrosion.

Developers in the U.S. used asbestos throughout homes and apartments up until the 1980s, which is when its carcinogenic dangers gained notoriety. Asbestos exposure risk is higher in denser and older cities, including New York City, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, where there are many historically older apartment buildings and homes. 

The toxic mineral is the primary cause of mesothelioma, a cancer that affects the outer linings of the lungs and abdominal cavity, and several other asbestos-related diseases. The following products used in apartments were known to contain asbestos:

While asbestos is no longer used in new construction projects, the material is still legal to use –  in minimal amounts – in more than a dozen applications. In March 2024, the Biden administration finalized a nationwide ban of chrysotile asbestos. The primary industry that still uses imported asbestos is the chloralkali industry, which uses asbestos-containing gaskets for the production of chlorine. Other types of asbestos aren’t covered by the ban.

What to Do if You Suspect Asbestos in Your Home

1 in 4 Americans are unsure if their homes contain asbestos. It’s difficult to identify by sight. The safest plan is to hire a trained asbestos inspector to test the home for asbestos. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a list of accredited laboratories that can perform testing.

If you believe asbestos may be in your home, you shouldn’t touch or disturb it. Once disturbed, the microscopic toxic fibers can become airborne, which increases the risk of inhalation, ingestion or both. Those fibers can lead to a serious illness years or even decades later. 

Another asbestos exposure risk is do-it-yourself home renovation projects. Seemingly innocent activities such as drilling through drywall, replacing an old pipe, removing old floor tiles or removing popcorn ceilings can all be dangerous by propelling asbestos fibers into the air. If you plan on remodeling or have damaged or disturbed drywall or insulation in the home, you should have the materials tested for asbestos. 

If there is known asbestos in the home, you should check for signs of wear or damage. If it looks like it may be breaking apart, you should contact your landlord if you’re renting, or hire an asbestos abatement company to ensure safe removal. One example of asbestos that may easily break or crumble in the home includes insulation around steam pipes.

Landlords who rent property are responsible for keeping up with the latest housing codes and maintaining a safe environment for renters. Every state has a different housing code or law. Depending on the state, not every landlord may be responsible for informing tenants about asbestos in their homes or apartments. But the Occupational Safety and Health Administration does have federal requirements for landlords concerning older buildings.

Asbestos Safe Handling and Dangers

Improper handling of asbestos-containing materials is not only unsafe to the general public, but it’s also illegal. Abatement projects carried out improperly can result in serious fines and possible incarceration. 

In March 2024, the Massachusetts Attorney General fined several companies a total of $825,000 for the improper handling, disposal, and removal of materials containing asbestos. Those fines are part of more than $7.7 million in civil penalties imposed by the Massachusetts AG office since 2016.

Trained professionals should be the only ones responsible for the safe handling, disposal and removal of asbestos. If you suspect improper asbestos abatement has taken place at your home or apartment, you can report it to the EPA, OSHA and your local department of environmental quality.

3,000 people are diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease every year according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Exposure to toxic asbestos can lead to several health problems including mesothelioma, lung cancer, ovarian cancer, laryngeal cancer, and asbestosis

No amount of asbestos exposure is considered safe. Even short-term asbestos exposure can be linked to cases of mesothelioma.