Asbestos in our classic Hillcrest bungalow

Was it safer to remove it completely and correctly or to repair it?

I must have walked by it a hundred times before I realized what it was, and a hundred times again I wished I'd never found out. And I've since learned much more about asbestos than I ever cared to know.

The white-frame, bay-windowed house, built some 70 years ago, overlooked a densely thicketed canyon north of Washington on Third Avenue.

The white-frame, bay-windowed house, built some 70 years ago, overlooked a densely thicketed canyon north of Washington on Third Avenue.

My husband and I had been house hunting in San Diego for three weeks when we found our idea of a classic California bungalow in a quiet corner of Hillcrest. The white-frame, bay-windowed house, built some seventy years ago, overlooked a densely thicketed canyon north of Washington on Third Avenue. It was rundown and filthy, trashed by previous tenants, but it had enough space for an office and a real bedroom for our six-month-old daughter, who had been sleeping in a walk-in closet in our cramped San Francisco apartment. Despite the work it would take to make it livable, we were happy to pay $500 per month to rent a house we liked in a housing market where we couldn't afford to buy.

We saw the free-standing boiler heater, encrusted in what looked like a plaster cast for a broken leg, by the kitchen door when we first toured the house. I remember laughing at its outsized stolidness, designed, it seemed, to combat harsh Maine winters, not Southern California mildness. But we were too charmed by the beveled windows and wood moldings to pay much attention to the antiquated furnace.

Together we set to work on all six rooms of the rented dump we hoped to turn into a palace. We painted every wall, scraped dog feces and remnants of old carpeting off the hardwood floors, scrubbed roach-infested kitchen cabinets, freed stuck windows, revived the brown front lawn and dying rose bushes. This was our first true home in more than two years of traveling, and we looked forward to a more stable life with our new baby. Here was even a yard where she could play.

A month of sweaty work had just ended when my husband and I were talking in bed one Sunday morning. "The back porch will make a great office," I said. "It's a shame the heater's back there, but I got most all the asbestos cleaned up, so it shouldn't bother you."

"Asbestos!" Jonathan nearly screamed, and bolted out of bed. "How do you know that's asbestos?"

"I don't for sure," I stammered. "But asbestos is white and powdery and used for insulation..."

"How could you know that's asbestos and not tell me? Don't you know how dangerous it is!" he shouted. "Has Madigan been crawling around there? You'd better find out what it is and block the door to the kitchen."

Our baby woke up crying. I went to her, trying to remember if I'd seen her crawling near the furnace on her expeditions, during which she would touch and taste everything in sight. My stomach quivered when I kissed her sleepy face. Was she all right? On the other hand, I thought, my husband is a notorious alarmist. Every asbestos story I'd read in the press involved workers immersed in the dust over a lifetime. Here was just a little and it might not even be asbestos.

My offhand remark shattered the peaceful Sunday morning. We spent the day outdoors, keeping Madigan away from the furnace and discussing what we should do if it proved to be asbestos. That morning marked the beginning of a frustrated, confusing struggle to get straight answers and help.

Asbestos, a fiberlike mineral, is a carcinogen, and as with all carcinogens, there is no "safe" level of contact with it. Most of the highly publicized victims of asbestos-related diseases are those who worked directly with it for years, since it began to be used heavily in commerce and industry in 1940. Those victims worked in shipyards, refineries, factories, and at construction sites. Now they suffer a variety of crippling and fatal illnesses, including asbestosis, a scarring of the lung tissue that impairs breathing; lung cancer; mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the chest-cavity lining; and a number of other cancers. Those exposed include thousands of San Diego shipyard workers. A 1981 federal labor department study reported that between 8500 and 12,000 workers will die each year for the next twenty years from asbestos-related diseases — 170,000 to 240,000 people in one generation. The problem is epidemic in its proportions, though only recently has the general public become aware of the dangers posed by asbestos.

Even now, nobody knows how severe an exposure to the substance is required for cancer to develop, and virtually everyone is exposed to it. It can be found in floor tiles, roof shingles, sprayed-on ceilings, plaster walls, general insulation, fireproof fabric, brake linings, gaskets, pipes, ventilation ducts, potholders, and countless other items used daily. Heavily exposed workers are not alone in suffering its ill effects; cancer has developed in workers exposed for only one day. Family members of asbestos workers have developed abestosis and cancer from asbestos particles carried into the home on workers' hair and clothes.

Asbestos is not dangerous unless it is loose and airborne. It becomes easily airborne when the material into which it is incorporated is frayed or cut, and this happens commonly during home renovation and repair. The particles begin to do damage when inhaled; microscopic asbestos fibers lodge permanently in the lungs. But nobody yet understands why one person may escape unharmed from exposure while the next may linger in a long and painful death. Medical researchers have learned how the embedded fibers cause abestosis, which is not a cancerous condition, but do not know precisely how these fibers trigger the growth of cancer cells. Asbestos workers who smoke contract cancer ninety-two times more frequently than nonsmokers. I smoke. And babies, who breathe at a much faster rate than adults, are also particularly vulnerable.

"A lot of problems that were once considered occupational are now being considered environmental; it is a question of at what point the general public is exposed," says Dr. Ruth Heifetz, epidemiologist and professor of community medicine at UCSD's medical school. She helped initiate a "community right to know" ordinance (adopted a month ago) for San Diego County that, among other provisions, requires businesses within the county to disclose information about hazardous substances they handle. "Anyone living in a relatively older home should explore how it was constructed and look in common places, like around hot-water piper, heaters, and piping in general for signs of asbestos," Heifetz says. "If you see an area [of the asbestos] ripped or open, it certainly should signal some concern." But I knew none of this that fateful Sunday several months ago.

On Monday morning a contractor from Thorpe Insulation Company found asbestos on our furnace. His company was working at nearby Mercy Hospital and he agreed to take a look when I called. "Yeah, that's asbestos all right," he said, rubbing some loose fibers between his fingers. He guessed that it had been installed more than thirty years ago. (Later I learned the only sure way to identify asbestos is to have it tested by a laboratory.) Madigan was in my arms when he told me. I handed her to the babysitter to take outside.

The four-foot-tall furnace was covered on three sides by a two-inch coating of the white, powdery board, now in such deteriorated condition that each breeze from an open window loosened more particles. White dust covered the floor around the furnace. I recalled that fibers had been found airborne in asbestos workers' homes twenty years after they had stopped working with it. I asked the man from Thorpe to take a look at the attic. He saw the octopus-like maze of heating pipes wrapped in a similar coating. That was asbestos too, he said. Some fifty feet of it, exposed at the joints of the pipes, the old canvas covering torn and shredded in patches throughout. "Can you take it out?" I asked, assuming all we needed was to set a price and a time.

He laughed quietly. Impossible. It wouldn't be worth it for his company, which specializes in large asbestos-removal projects in commercial and public buildings, to take on our tiny job. He listed some of the stringent requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for removing asbestos: rooms containing it must be sealed off; the asbestos must be thoroughly wetted down while being removed; workers must wear special protective clothing and respirators and be provided a source of fresh air. It would cost $200 just to dispose of the asbestos in a special toxic-waste site. Removing it, if done by the book, would run into thousands of dollars, he said.

"Thousands of dollars?" I looked at him unbelieving. "But we rent this house!"

He suggested instead a home fix-it job, patching up exposed areas with a heat-resistant sealant that would prevent the fibers from becoming airborne. I listened to his cursory explanation — simple for a skilled handyman, perhaps — and felt sicker. If experts had to wear special equipment, how were my husband and I going to handle it?

He said an industrial laboratory should take an air reading in the house to determine how many asbestos fibers it contained. OSHA has decreed two asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter as the maximum allowable for a safe working environment, but even that figure, I later learned, has been criticized as not low enough.

On Thorpe's recommendation, I described the nature of our asbestos insulation to Amtech Laboratories in Kearny Mesa, trying to determine whether they thought our amount to be dangerous before contracting with them to conduct an air reading. I got the cautious response expected from a scientist: It would be impossible to judge without a reading. Their consulting fee was seventy-five dollars per hour. "Look, this is the American capitalist system and you're looking for free advice," said a lab technician, abruptly ending our short conversation.

I quit for the day, discouraged and angry. Even the California office of the Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco, where I began calling for help, offered nothing more than reading me a textbook description of asbestos and its hazards. What were they in business for?

When Jonathan got home from work at the new job that had brought us to San Diego, we mopped the asbestos dust from around the furnace and sat down to a silent dinner. Jonathan finally said that we should move out; working with it ourselves was too risky and we couldn't afford paying months of rent on a major repair for a house we didn't own. Each day we stayed increased the danger to Madigan.

I was furious, cursing his righteous caution that implied I was willing to risk our child's health for a house I liked. I regarded the asbestos as a problem worth trying to solve; nobody I'd talked to yet said our health was definitely in danger. Weeks of scrubbing and painting were too much effort to waste, and I knew it was unlikely we would find another house and location that appealed to us as much. The neighborhood walk we took after dinner ended in more arguing; I walked on alone, kicking every trash can and mailbox in sight.

Jonathan reluctantly agreed to continue looking for a solution. I spent the next few days juggling phone calls in between tending Madigan. Four other large insulation companies like Thorpe quoted estimated between $2000 and $5000 to remove the asbestos, and most of them also said our house was too small a job to consider.

Smaller general insulation companies seemed not to believe or were even ignorant of the fact that asbestos was dangerous. They would be glad to tear it out at minimal cost, and with no safeguards. They had done it before in modernizing house heating systems. We didn't know how much asbestos already was floating around the house, and the last thing I wanted was to release more of it.

My worst fears were confirmed by the National Consumer Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. I spoke by telephone with Hugh Spitzer of the agency's health sciences department. He regarded our asbestos insulation a serious hazard shared by many other households across the country, but cautioned against removal. "Removal is the least desirable way to go — the last resort," he said. "There's no perfect solution. We're recommending that homeowners rewrap and seal it thoroughly. The less you agitate it the better. Good luck."

The options confused us. Was it safer to remove it completely and correctly or to repair it? We couldn't pay for removal and didn't want to work with it ourselves. Most of ten local heating and insulation contractors I questioned later said they still find asbestos in older homes throughout the country. Often they find it used to protect kitchen cabinets from stoves and in a thin papery sheeting wrapped around heating pipes as insulation. Occasionally they find it in pressed board form, layered around furnaces as it was in our house. The building department of the City of San Diego, I discovered, does not prohibit the use of asbestos. The county prohibits it only when used in pipes that conduct hot air. "We've seen it in vents, above ranges, on storage tanks and forced-air heaters, mostly in the old houses," said Jerry Brennan, owner of Klindt Plumbing and Heating. "It's out there all right; it's all around."

We knew from the outset that the insulation was our landlord's responsibility, but we also knew he wouldn't pay thousands to remove it and doubted he would fix it himself. We had not met him; we dealt with his property manager, who repeatedly told us each time we sought minor repairs that the house was bought on speculation, that the landlord was losing money, and that he didn't want to sink in more. He already promised to repay us for the paint, and we were trying to persuade him to install kitchen linoleum for $200. Madigan still had blackened hands and knees from crawling on the old ripped floor that had been scrubbed several times.

Then we thought that perhaps a local government agency could force the landlord to deal with the asbestos. Herb, of the county health department, gave this advice: "If I were you, I'd just wet it down, tear it off, put it in a bag, and dump it in a dumpster somewhere. I can't tell you that officially. I've told some people who were worried about it to leave it in a bag on their front porch. I can't tell them to put it in a dumpster, so I go and do it...it's the press that's blown this thing way out of proportion." He added that our problem did not come under his jurisdiction since it did not affect the community at large, and he referred me to the county building department. "Thanks a lot," I said, slamming down the receiver, "for nothing." Building department officials subsequently said they only regulate asbestos in public buildings or in new construction.

Our frustration mounted as we began to realize that these agencies charged with public welfare weren't going to help. Moreover, an official supposedly guarding the health of San Diegans recommended spreading the toxin by putting it in dumpsters. We felt we were being poisoned in our own home and were helpless to do anything about it. It couldn't be happening to us; this was for Love Canal residents, neighbors of Three Mile Island, owners of homes insulated with formaldehyde. But those anonymous victims were no longer blurry characters with remote problems; we faced their dilemma. What do you do when nobody will take responsibility and nobody has conclusive answers?

Even OSHA, the federal agency most involved with controlling asbestos, worked against us. Its strict standards made it prohibitively expensive for a company with asbestos expertise to remove it from a private home. California OSHA officials, whom I had called, told me in a convoluted legal interpretation that I could be cited for allowing asbestos in my home! I figured OSHA regulated hazards in the commercial workplace, and as a free-lance writer, my home was my workplace. But being self-employed, they said, I was also technically the employer who could be held responsible.

The Neighborhood House Association, an independent San Diego group that handles landlord-tenant relations, offered some recourse by informing us that the law provides an implied "warrant of habitability," that rental units be "fit for human occupancy." But court action would probably be required to prove our house was not fit. We didn't want a lengthy court fight, living with asbestos for months in the meantime. We wanted a healthy place to live and to get on with living.

After days filled with scores of calls like these, I had given up finding ideal solutions and decided to repair the asbestos myself -- with the help of a maverick contractor whose company is tearing out asbestos from Navy shops drydocked in San Diego. He sympathized with our situation and offered to remove the furnace covering the next weekend, a favor "on the side." He would show me how to "lag," or rewrap, the attic piping myself. He knew how to handle asbestos safely, but thought it unnecessary to follow all the OSHA standards for such a small job. "Hell, I'm not afraid of this stuff," he told me, shaking more loose from the heater.

I was. I backed away and checked nervously to see if the door was closed to the kitchen, where Madigan was eating lunch. His confidence made me uneasy, but his favor appeared to be the only option if we were to stay. Jonathan, however, was against it. If it had to be sealed, he'd seal it; at least he ran less risk when breathing it than did I, a smoker.

I tried one last resort. I called my friend Rachel Scott. An expert in industrial toxins, she wrote a widely selling expose on working hazards, Muscle and Blood, and helped initiate lawsuits that forced asbestos-insulated hair dryers off the market. I didn't know her whereabouts; we had kept only in sporadic contact since working at the Washington Post together five years ago. But I managed to track her down. "Get out," she ordered. "It's not worth the risk, working with it or living with it if you don't have to. Fibers are probably all over the house and have been for years." She said there was no way to remove all of it and there was no safe level of exposure. The numerical limits on asbestos fibers were arbitrary figures drawn up in committee meetings. She described the case of a twelve-year-old boy who developed mesothelioma a few years later after helping his father cut asbestos board in a week-long home improvement project. "I bet your house overlooks the ocean, doesn't it," she laughed.

"You're close," I said. "A big lush canyon."

Rachel hung up and Jonathan and I looked at each other. "Is she right, or are the common-sense skeptics who call this much harmless the ones who are right?" I asked.

"If it's harmless, why all the rules for working with it? Why are hundreds of thousands sick and dying from it?" Jonathan answered.

"But if it's so harmful, why can't we get any help?" I went on. "Should we fix it ourselves or get experts to do it? Will that eliminate the danger?"

We didn't know. We stood in front of the furnace, wondering could its innocuous-looking cover kill us, kill Madigan. Were we just alarmists, products of environmentally sensitive times that discover a new health hazard daily? It didn't matter. Nobody could tell us how to weigh the risks. We were choosing between two extremes: so little asbestos is nothing to worry about but any exposure is dangerous. Madigan's cry in her sleep from the bedroom forced our decision. We still had no answers but we had responsibility for her life. We had no choice but to move out. The decision was a relief.

We don't know if we breathed in asbestos, or if we did, how much, or whether it will ever cause us harm. Had we owned the Hillcrest house, we might have paid to remove it or have it repaired. We were glad we didn't own it; we felt lucky to walk away. But you can't always walk away. Many people own homes with asbestos that they can't afford to walk away from. Asbestos is one of hundreds of toxins in products — from nuclear energy to pesticides — designed to protect us from our environment yet which endanger us as much as natural elements. Who takes responsibility for their use? The courts are busy resolving such questions of liability. Each of us, particularly in this era of deregulation, has to judge our own risk on speculative information, I learned. It is a modern fight for survival.

As a formality we asked the property manager if the landlord would pay to remove the asbestos. When he heard the estimated cost, he immediately said no. We told him we were leaving. He had no objections, seeming eager for us to get out without trouble; besides, he said, he would be able to charge the next tenants a hundreds dollars move in rent for a freshly painted house. He remarked that the previous owner of the house had lived there thirty-five years before dying in her nineties. Good for her, we thought.

We must have seemed strange to realtors, asking to see insulation before any other feature of the houses we toured. Two houses, one in Mission Hills and the other in North Park, contained chrysotile asbestos in paper ducting insulation we had tested. It was only slightly frayed. Some would consider it potentially dangerous and others not. We did.

We have finally found another bungalow, also overlooking a canyon, on the northeast periphery of Hillcrest. It has no asbestos. There is one gas heater in the living room that blows hot air like a dragon when it's on; the house quickly goes cold when it's off. We wore sweaters frequently this winter and shivered happily.

As for the furnace in our old house, the property manager said he would repair it after I gave him instructions. Two families have lived there since, one with another infant. The asbestos is still as worn and torn and flaky as it ever was.

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