Asbestos, Where Art Thou?

The first step in demolishing an old home doesn’t involve knocking anything down. Instead, it’s about removing whatever material contains pesky asbestos from the site.

You have to hire specially trained and licensed people to do this. We’re working with John Howell of JWH Asbestos Removal Services out of Campbell, CA. The work is scheduled to run from Wednesday, August 14th through Thursday, August 22nd. When it’s done, the house and garage will still be standing, but the stucco will be gone. Plus other stuff not visible from the outside, of course.

If you want to learn more about the somewhat convoluted process used in California to identify and address asbestos issues in residential structures, read on…

When you’re planning on knocking something down, you don’t automatically think of doing it in a highly-controlled way. After all, one of the simple, carefree joys of life is to smash stuff (at least for those of us afflicted with Y chromosomes). But when asbestos gets involved — and it’s likely involved in every house built in California through the end of the 60s — you can’t do that.

You start the asbestos removal process by having the structures to be demolished tested. We used ProTech, out of Redwood City, CA. In our case the work had already been done by the prior owners — we bought the property from a couple that was also planning a demo-and-new-build, but were relocated for work reasons — but the process involves a site visit and some lab work.

These initial lab results identify materials containing harmful asbestos (the stuff comes in several different crystalline forms, only some of which are hazardous). But it doesn’t tell you, definitively, what level of harmful asbestos is present. And that’s key, because there are separate State (Cal OSHA) and Federal (EPA) regulations governing disposal of asbestos, tied to the assayed levels. The EPA rules dictate what gets done with material containing more than 1% of harmful asbestos. The Cal OSHA rules dictate how to handle material containing more than 0.1% harmful asbestos. The initial lab results only give you a rough guide as to levels. So if you find you have harmful asbestos, the initial tests alone require you to follow the most stringent protocols (both EPA and Cal OSHA).

You can pay to have additional, more accurate tests done. These are called “400 point” and “1000 point” tests, because the way asbestos is assayed involves a technician examining material samples under a microscope at either 400 or 1000 randomly selected points and seeing if harmful asbestos is present at that point. The 400 point test, which cost me about $500, will tell you if you’re below 1%. The 1000 point test, which cost me about $800, will tell you if you’re below 0.1%.

The point of doing the more stringent tests is to see if you can reduce the cost of asbestos removal. If you can verify that harmful asbestos is present in concentrations below 0.1% then you don’t need a special asbestos removal contractor at all — any regular demolition contractor can do the job, saving you some significant money. If you can at least show that the level is below 1% then the asbestos removal contractor can do the work in a controlled but less costly way, saving at least some money.

There’s an element of chance in doing the more stringent tests. It’s possible, for example, that a 1% or less result obtained from a 400 point test can be supplanted by a higher level result from the 1000 point test. It’s rare, but the field surveyor from ProTech told me he’s seen it happen. You pays your money and you takes your chances.

In our case, there were two materials that warranted 1000 point testing (the others had tested out above 1% already). In one case we confirmed a less than 0.1% level and in the other we didn’t. You win some and you lose some :).

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