Asbestos is a group of minerals formed by combinations of magnesium and silicon, which create hollow, microscopic fibers. These fibers are nearly indestructible, and can be tightly packed to form a flexible, yet durable, material. Asbestos added fire and corrosion resistance and extra insulating ability, and made material like wallboard easy to cut and shape. This is the reason asbestos was commonly added to a variety of building materials. Homes and commercial buildings constructed from the early 1900s to the 1970s often contained asbestos cement wallboard.
When material containing asbestos breaks down, or is damaged in some way, the asbestos fibers are released into the air. Because they are so small, they can easily be inhaled into your lungs, where they can remain for many years. People who have prolonged exposure to asbestos fibers can, over time, develop diseases such as asbestosis (scarring of the lungs) or mesothelioma (cancer of the pleura, or lining of the lung). A smoker who is exposed to asbestos has a greater risk of developing lung cancer, since the asbestos fibers irritate the lungs and make them even more sensitive. These diseases often take years to develop and have no warning signs.
If your home or commercial building was constructed before 1980, chances are it contains asbestos cement wallboard. The only way to tell for certain is to check for a manufacturer or product name on the wallboard itself, so that you can do research to discover whether asbestos fibers were added, or have it professionally tested.
Even if asbestos cement wallboard is present, it does not necessarily mean that there will be problems. If the wallboard is intact and in good condition, then asbestos fibers are not likely being released. You may decide just to cover it with new wallboard. If the wallboard is damaged, though, especially if you can crumble it by hand, then you need to contact a professional. A trained contractor, or asbestos abatement company, knows the proper procedures for safe handling and disposal of asbestos-containing materials.
Schools, businesses and other commercial buildings are subject to standards and regulations set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for asbestos identification, exposure and removal. Even though private homes may not be subject to these guidelines, a homeowner should not attempt to remove or repair asbestos cement wallboard. Improper handling can create a dangerous health hazard. The local or state health department, Environmental Protection Agency office, or OSHA office can provide more information, and may have listings of trained asbestos professionals.