Andy Wojtowski

Podcast: Asbestos, Home Inspections, and Vermiculite


Asbestos, Home Inspections, and Vermiculite: Today the gang discusses asbestos. While home inspection standards of practice don’t require home inspectors to report on environmental hazards such as asbestos, most home inspectors still point this stuff out if they believe it’s a problem. The most common locations for hazardous asbestos are discussed, along with what can be done when asbestos is found.

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The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.

Speaker 1: One of the things that is now becoming more important in renovations is to be aware of whether or not there’s asbestos content in your home. Many of us probably don’t realise that there’s asbestos in more materials common in our houses than we would have suspected or hoped. As recently as 1993, the mud or the compound, drywall compound used in homes contained enough asbestos that it creates quite a hazard now if it’s exposed and the dust becomes airborne.

Speaker 2: Home construction as late as 1990 included the use of asbestos-containing materials. At its peak use, asbestos was incorporated into more than 5,000 products. Asbestos was a popular construction option because it’s sturdy, it insulates, and it’s fire-resistant. Asbestos may be located in roofs, insulation, attics, ceilings, basements, exterior siding, flooring, and steam pipes. Asbestos that is intact is not harmful. Asbestos becomes harmful when it’s dislodged, and fibers enter into the air.

Speaker 3: This is Structure Talk, a podcast for Minnesota’s most highly-rated home inspection company, Structure Tech. We’re the people who do home forensics and deliver the unbiased truth about your property. Structure Talk is hosted by our home inspection specialists, Reuben Saltzman, Tessa Murry and Bill Oelrich.

Bill Oelrich: Welcome, everybody to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. I’m Bill Oelrich. Today, I’m here with Tessa Murray and Ruben Saltzman, and we were gonna dig into the topic of asbestos today. As home inspectors, we run into asbestos in houses on a semi-regular basis, and it’s one of those issues that always seems to bring up a lot of questions, and people always ask, “Is it okay if that’s there?” or “What should I do with this? What should I do with that?” So we’re gonna scratch the surface on asbestos today. So Reuben, what are the common types of asbestos products we run into while doing a home inspection?

Reuben Saltzman: It could be just about anything. As I look around the room right now, you could have asbestos in the popcorn ceiling, in the dry wall, the drywall tape, the mud, the wallpaper, the carpet, the carpet adhesive. Basically, if a material is not made out of wood or metal, it may contain asbestos. That’s what it comes down to. People will talk to us and say, “Hey, I want you to test for asbestos.” And it’s like, “Test what?” [chuckle] It could be in anything.

Tessa Murry: And we learn that from an industrial hygienist and engineer, right?

RS: Yeah, someone who taught…

TM: Yeah, an ASHI chapter session.

BO: ASHI is a professional organization we all belong to, American Society of Home Inspectors. Get a little geek speak going on in here. So that’s a lot of stuff. My confidence meter is real low right now. I’m feeling like I’m walking into an environmental hazard surrounding me.

RS: Well, the good news is that for most of these materials, the asbestos is gonna be well encapsulated or well entrained in the material. It’s not gonna become airborne. When it’s really loose and it becomes easily airborne, that’s what we call…

TM: Friable.

RS: Friable. Yeah, thank you.

BO: Why is friable a matter?

RS: Well, it becomes easily released into the air and then you can breathe it in, and it gets into your lungs, and that’s when bad stuff happens. It’s either… What is it, mesothelioma…

TM: Mesothelioma.

RS: Asbestosis and lung cancer.

TM: Lung cancer.

RS: Those are kind of the three big things. And I think one of those, there’s a little overlap. I think mesothelioma might be a form of cancer. I don’t know.

TM: We’re not doctors. Medical doctors.

RS: No, we’re not experts. We just know it ain’t good.

TM: It’s not good to breath in.

BO: Yeah, we know that. Okay, so we know it’s not good. But let’s bring this back to the home inspection and somebody’s buying a house. What do they need to be concerned about, and what are you pointing out specifically during your inspections? Tessa, I’m gonna go to you.

TM: That’s a great question. Well, there’s a few materials that we’re pretty sure contain asbestos. It’s known. So those products, if we see them, we’ll mention them to the homeowner. And like Reuben said, if it’s a friable material, we’ll definitely talk to them about that, what that means, the potential health concerns with it and recommend having it remediated by a professional abatement company. Some of those products that we see commonly, older houses that have boiler pipes. If they’re insulated, usually it’s this kind of white-looking insulation that’s wrapped around the pipes, that’s usually asbestos-containing.

BO: Okay, I’ve seen that.

TM: Yeah. Another product that we see a lot, too, it’s kind of an insulation, too, on old ductwork, and it looks similar. It’s a white-looking wrap around old ductwork. And then 9 x 9 floor tiles, that’s a pretty common one. If we see the 9 x 9 floor tiles, we call it out, we mention it. But they’ve done research on houses that have these 9 x 9 floor tiles to see if there’s hazardous levels of asbestos in the air, and there really isn’t, right, Reuben?

RS: No, that is so well-embedded inside those tiles, you would have to go way out of your way to make it a hazard. You’d have to take an angle grinder and purposely try to get the stuff airborne, turn it into a powder, otherwise it’s embedded inside there. It’s not a hazard. And it’s not only the 9 x 9 tiles, the adhesive…

TM: The adhesive, the glue that holds it down.

BO: Okay. Why do you say just 9 x 9? These tiles comes in all shapes and sizes.

RS: Well, if it’s a 9 x 9 floor tile, it’s basically a guarantee that it’s gonna contain asbestos. And I used to tell people that when it changed over, when we started using 12 x 12s, that they stopped adding asbestos. Insert foot in mouth. [chuckle] That was not correct. Our industrial hygienist taught us that, “No, 12 x 12s may contain asbestos, too.” Most of it doesn’t, but it still can. Don’t make a sweeping generalisation like that. You don’t know unless you test it, but I’m not an advocate of testing floor tiles. I see no value in testing. If it’s 9 x 9, just assume it contains asbestos. That’s it.

TM: Now another product I didn’t mention earlier, but it does come up, is transite asbestos ductwork. Ductwork that is in the slab, so houses that have a walkout basement or just a basement that’s got ductwork in the slab, sometimes that ductwork can be made out of asbestos.

RS: Back up, though, Tessa, ’cause you said transite and everybody seems to call sub-slab ductwork transite heat. That’s like the standard term for it.

TM: This drives you nuts. Doesn’t it, Reuben?

RS: It does.

TM: So I’ll clarify. [chuckle] Sub-slab ductwork is different than transite ductwork. Transite means it’s asbestos. And so, somehow along the line, people got confused that when you have ductwork in the slab, it’s called transite ductwork, but that’s not accurate.

RS: Yeah, it’s only transite, if it actually contains asbestos.

TM: Asbestos.

RS: Otherwise, you call it sub-slab heating.

BO: Is that pretty easy for you to identify?

RS: Yeah.

BO: It stinks out like yourself, huh?

RS: When we see it, we know it. And you just had a recent situation where someone who was kind of freaked out about it. What did you hear about, Tessa?

TM: Well, we should have talked about this on the podcast we just did about controversial issues. Because you say that it’s easy to find, but this is actually a town home, and it had ductwork in the slab, and this town home was built, I think in the ’80s, maybe the ’70s. And usually what we do to try and identify if it is transite ductwork, is to remove a register cover in the floor and actually take a look at the ductwork. And usually, you can see the cut edges of the duct and you can identify if it’s this transite material or not.

BO: Scratch away on it until it becomes friable and then…

TM: Yeah, yeah, exactly I scratch it and breathe in the dust. Yeah.

BO: The sniff test.

TM: The sniff test. [laughter]

BO: Smells like asbestos.

TM: Yeah. Well, so I was in this town house and I did that on every single floor register cover that I could see and there was metal ductwork. Well, they lined the duct with metal, and all I could see was just this metal and it didn’t look like it was transite. So I didn’t make any comment about it being an issue, and it turns out the person buying this property was actually a real estate agent, and there was another town house in the same development that was for sale at the same time. And apparently, she had access to the inspection report from that, and the inspector had identified what they thought to be transite ductwork. And so, she called me freaking out because she was concerned about having this asbestos ductwork.

BO: Well, it feels like I understand her concern. If this product is only bad when it’s airborne, it just happens to be in the ductwork that’s housing the air that’s being blown around the house. Yeah, I could see why it might be a problem.

TM: So this real state agent was really concerned, obviously, because you think that the air that you’re breathing moving through asbestos ductwork would be a health concern, right?

BO: Yeah, I agree with that.

TM: So she contacted, what’s it called…

RS: Technical Services.

TM: Yeah, Legend Technical Services. They are a company that does testing, and one of the testers there and their engineers came out, basically said, “I feel bad about charging you for this test. Basically, this ductwork is not a health concern.”

RS: Yeah, it takes a lot to get that airborne. It’s just like the 9 x 9 floor tiles. You’d have to really go out of your way to damage it to the point of having it become airborne. You’ll have duct cleaning companies who’ll say, “Oh we’re not even gonna clean this ductwork ’cause it’s a health hazard,” but I don’t buy any of that. I’ve listed that as a concern on my blog ’cause I know that people will bring it up but as far as I’m concerned, this is a zero. This is just like asbestos and in many other products where it’s well encapsulated. It’s not a health concern, it just exists.

BO: Okay, I know there’s one more product out there that we’ve yet to touch on. So, Reuben I’m gonna throw this softball over to you.


RS: This is vermiculite insulation. This is insulation that came from a mine in Libby, Montana. And I’d say maybe like 95% of the vermiculite that we find in attics came from that mine. And it was made by this company called Zonolite which was… Who owned them?

TM: It’s owned by W. R. Grace Company.

RS: That’s it, yeah.

TM: Yeah. I think they manufactured it from what the 1940s to the 80s.

RS: It was a long period. That sounds right, maybe even ’30s through the ’80s.

TM: Okay. Yeah, and we find that in houses that are pre-1930s, ’40s, people that bought that product later and added it to older existing homes.

RS: We’ve found homes where you have unopened bags in the attics. [chuckle] Seriously, we’ve got pictures of it. And just so people know what this stuff looks like, it’s super light fluffy stuff. How would you describe it? It’s like shiny…

TM: Looks like little shiny pebbles. I would describe it as little kind of silvery gold-looking little pebbles.

RS: Yeah. And the weight is similar to popcorn. I mean it’s that light.

TM: Yeah, it’s light.

BO: So, it’s mined out of the earth. It’s called expanded mica, correct? Or…

RS: That’s… Yeah.

BO: And so, this piece of ground that… They’ve come out, they’ve altered it a little bit and put it in a bag and sent it out to be tossed in houses.

RS: Yeah. And, this stuff unlike all these other products we’ve been talking about that maybe are a concern, maybe not, this stuff is absolutely a concern. And I’ve known about this for a long time, and my advice used to be when I’d find this in an attic, I’d say, “Well, yeah, it’s vermiculite and it may contain asbestos and I’d follow the EPA’s recommendation.” I’d say, “Leave it alone, don’t disturb it. If you are gonna disturb it, then you should test for asbestos,” and it turns out that wasn’t good advice.

TM: Yeah. Yeah, I lived by that recommendation, too. When I worked for an insulation company for five years, that’s what we used to tell our clients. That very advice.

RS: And it turns out it’s bad advice because the EPA’s threshold for an asbestos containing product is 1%. If it contains less than 1% asbestos, it’s not an asbestos containing product. Well, as part of this class action lawsuit against the W. R. Grace Company, manufacturers of Zonolite, there was a study done on the effects of vermiculite insulation containing less than 1% asbestos. They studied the exact product that we’re saying is not a big deal. Turns out it’s just super nasty. Just a little bit of routine cleaning in an attic that has this stuff or replacing a bath fan below this stuff, or a light fixture below it, or any of these things that a homeowner might accidentally do if they live in this house, makes this stuff become airborne, and it stays airborne for a week or two. And it gets distributed throughout the entire home. And there’s three types of asbestos particles or something, and I don’t even remember what type they are, but it’s the worst out of the three. The one you really don’t wanna get in your lungs and it becomes airborne for a really long period of time. So they said, with this stuff, it doesn’t matter how much asbestos is in there, it’s really bad for you.

TM: Yeah. And the big difference being that the EPA guidelines are based off of basically solid products like floor tiles and the transite duct work, whereas vermiculite, it’s a loose fill insulation, and it behaves completely differently.

RS: Yeah.

BO: Well, and it just happens to be in the ceiling, and gravity being gravity, it could easily become…

TM: Disturbed.

RS: Disturbed and friable. The way I understand it is particle size is an issue, and the vermiculite particle size are really, really, really super small. And so, that’s why they don’t settle down forever, but I believe… And do you know exactly where to find this information? There is a great resource that talks about vermiculite insulation.

TM: Zonolite Attic Insulation.

RS: And I’ll just link to it on this podcast just to make it easier for people. But yeah, it’s

BO: Okay. And I believe there’s a talk on YouTube that actually explains all of this in a very technical basis. So, we’re talking about things that we are not expert at, so you can go to YouTube and you can type in “Zonolite insulation trust” and you’ll get a great explanation of what we’re talking about. What does somebody do if they have this product in their house?

RS: I’d say the first thing to do is go to the Zonolite Attic Insulation Trust website, which I’ve linked to here, and they’ve got a form that you fill out to start the claim process. And then the trust will send you a test kit, they’ll send you a nice $30 respirator, same type that we use in our house.

TM: Wow, really? They send out a respirator?

RS: Yes, yes, it’s crazy. They send one of those out. And side note, on this trust, this is one of the biggest class action lawsuits that’s ever happened. This was hundreds of millions of dollars from the W. R. Grace Company, and the company in charge of this trust, their responsibility is to educate the public and disperse the funds. That is their duty. They’re looking for ways to do this, they’re buying radio ads, TV spots, trying to educate the public, so it’s like, “Oh, can we spend $30 bucks on a mask?” Yeah, that’s part of it. So they’ll send you the mask, and they’ll send you a little test kit. You go in your attic, you take a little scoop of it, carefully, wearing your mark.

TM: Don’t breathe.

RS: Exactly, you send it in to them, and they don’t test for asbestos, because remember, that’s pointless. They test for a trace mineral that was found in this mine, I believe it’s barium.

TM: Barium.

RS: Yeah.

BO: Okay, so why don’t they test for asbestos?

RS: Because different sections of the mine may or may not have had asbestos. You can have a whole ton of asbestos in one part of your attic and just about none in the other part, that’s not gonna be consistent. But the trace mineral, barium, that’s gonna be consistent throughout. And they know if it came from this mine, it’s bad stuff.

BO: Okay, does the barium indicate the mine?

RS: That’s right.

BO: Okay. So then there’s other places in the world where this product is mined, too?

RS: Yeah, like maybe 5% of it may come from other places and it’s no harm.

BO: Okay, gotcha. You have the test kit, you send it into the trust. What’s the turn around time on results? Any ideas?

RS: I have no idea, don’t know what that is.

TM: That’s a good question, I don’t know either.

RS: Yeah, bottom line is you send it over to them, and then they will either confirm or deny that it came from that mine. And if they confirm it, then it’s your responsibility as the home owner to get rid of it. You gotta pay an abatement company to come in and basically take a gigantic wet dry vac and suck it out. Is that about right? No, Tessa, you know more about…

TM: There’s some more red tape around that.

RS: That’s not all there is?

TM: Yeah, yeah, it’s a process, and it’s not cheap either, but I believe the trust, I think, they will reimburse the cost of having it abated and your attic re-insulated. It’s like 55% of the cost up to 4,200, I think. So they won’t cover 100% of the cost, but they can cover a bigger chunk of it.

RS: You’re three dollars off, Tessa.

TM: Am I?

RS: Very good. I’m looking it up here right now. Yeah, it’s 55%, 4,203.37.

TM: There we go.

BO: Let’s clarify one thing, Reuben. You say if it’s found, then the seller has, or the homeowner has to get rid of this. They don’t have to do anything?

RS: They don’t have to.

BO: Okay, good.

RS: But that would just be the next step.

BO: Gotcha.

RS: And you determine that you’ve got it, you need to pay to get rid of it before you can get any money from this trust fund. You need to submit the receipts.

BO: Okay, okay, okay.

RS: And boy…

TM: It’s a reimbursement.

RS: The guy who’s in charge of this trust fund came out and taught at our ASHI Chapter. And man, he had some good stories about people trying to dupe them, trying to kinda work the system and submit false receipts and all that, it’s unbelievable what people do, but they’re really good at sniffing them out.

BO: Okay, so then the cost to remove this product, any ideas?

RS: I know exactly. I just had an agent calling us yesterday asking for a recommendation for an abatement company, so I did some calling around, and I talked to some people yesterday. They said they charge seven dollars a square foot, so you got 1,000 square foot home, you’ll have 1,000 square foot attic, and that’d be about 7,000 dollars to remove it.

BO: Okay, Tessa, when you’re putting new insulation into an attic, what typically can you do that for?

TM: It all depends on the type of insulation that you’re putting in.

BO: Okay, so ball park?

TM: You could spend anywhere from probably $2,000-4,000.

RS: Most people are gonna charge between about $2-4 a square foot.

TM: Yeah.

BO: Okay, so it’s $7 a square foot to get it removed. Okay, so doing the math, that’s $10-11 a square foot, right?

RS: Sounds about right, yeah.

BO: Pull it out, put it back in, the trust will pay up to $4,200, and 55%. Okay, what’s an average size attic?

TM: Anywhere from maybe 1,000 to 2,500 square feet? It just really depends on the house.

RS: A 2,500 square foot attic would be huge.

BO: Well, and it’s probably not the type of attic that had been insulated with this type of material.

TM: That’s true.

BO: So these are probably older smaller houses, maybe a 1,000 square feet?

TM: Sure.

BO: Okay, sounds good. So you’re gonna eat half of this bill.

TM: Yeah.

BO: 10 grand, and you’re gonna eat 5,800 bucks.

RS: About half of that. But at least there’s a lot of money out there to help you with.

TM: Mm-hmm. Maybe a little more.

BO: Yeah, that’s awesome. It could a lot worse.

TM: Better than nothing.

BO: People love can lights in this world we live in now, and drilling a hole in a ceiling with vermiculite insulation falling out of it, is probably not a great idea.

TM: Yeah, I can’t tell you how many attics I dug around in personally that had vermiculite in them, thinking that the information on the EPA’s website was what we should follow in terms of, “Have it tested, if it comes back less than one percent asbestos, then it’s okay.” And every attic we ever sent in samples always came back less than one percent asbestos.

RS: Yeah, I did it at my own house. I used to have a home in Minneapolis and back in 2007 or whatever, when I remodelled the upstairs, had it tested. They said it doesn’t contain it, and they just sucked it all out with a wet-dry vacuum [22:31] ____.

TM: Was that the company I worked for? [laughter]

RS: No, no, it was not. I won’t tell you who it was.

BO: The one thing is, there’s a lot of houses that are laying around that have issues and “issues”. This is just one of them, and you can fix it. It’s not the end of the world, it’s just something we find in the process of doing our job, and we offer solutions, we help people get to reasonable solutions.

RS: So I wanna say, from a home inspection perspective, we didn’t talk about this, but the home inspection standards of practice do exclude the identification of asbestos and…

TM: Environmental hazards.

RS: All other types of environmental hazards. Yeah, it’s not covered by home inspection standards of practice, but just about every good home inspector I know, when they see this stuff, if they see an asbestos containing material, something that’s known to contain it, they’re gonna point it out to their clients. Even though your home inspector doesn’t have to, good home inspectors are still gonna point this stuff out.

BO: Great, awesome. Well, this podcast is gonna be one where you absolutely wanna go to the website, because there’s gonna be links to some very technical information, so check out, find the podcast, you can dig into all the links from there. Thanks, everybody, for joining us, we’ll catch you next time.

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