- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2006

Temple Hills resident Antoine Nixon dreamed of owning a home in Bowie, maybe even one of the properties in “Levitt Bowie,” built by William Levitt and his company, Levitt & Sons, in the early 1960s. But a real estate agent’s comment at an open house last year gave Mr. Nixon pause.

“He said, ‘You know, you have to be careful with those Levitt houses because they have asbestos in them,’ ” Mr. Nixon says. He says he heard that some of the exterior tiles and interior ductwork might contain asbestos.

“I had to stumble onto this information,” says Mr. Nixon, a software engineer employed by EDS. “Had [the real estate agent] not mentioned it, I never would have known it. You see all these disclosure forms for lead-based paint at open houses; why not do the same with asbestos?”

Mr. Nixon’s concern was understandable. In the early 1980s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of a number of asbestos products, which until then was merely a mineral fiber commonly used in insulation and as a flame-retardant.

In Bill Levitt’s day, asbestos’ long-term health effects were unknown. Mr. Levitt’s main goal was to build homes within financial reach of most Americans, using affordable materials and a handful of fixed building plans to do so.

However, the presence of asbestos in Bowie homes is hardly an isolated occurrence. Countless American homes contain it. In fact, the mineral fiber’s strength, flame-resistance and insulating properties have been admired for millennia; for example, the ancient Greeks made burial shrouds of the stuff in order to preserve the ashes of the deceased following cremation. But if they knew then what we know now, they might have sought out a different method.

The tiniest asbestos fibers are the deadliest; when inhaled, they accumulate in the lungs.

Over the years they increase an individual’s risk of developing asbestosis, an irreversible scarring of the lungs; mesothelioma, a type of cancer affecting the abdominal linings and chest; or lung cancer.

These health problems may not emerge for decades, medical experts say.

“We still have people coming in whose exposure was 30 or 40 years ago,” says Dr. Alfred Munzer, chief of pulmonary medicine at Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park and former president of the American Lung Association.

However, he says, scars on the lungs resulting from asbestos exposure “are not something I see every day.”

Dr. Munzer typically takes a detailed medical history of his patients in an attempt to discern where and when they may have been exposed to the substance.

The route may be indirect. He recalled one patient with mesothelioma whose husband worked with asbestos; her exposure resulted from laundering his work clothes.

Although asbestos can lead to devastating disease, it’s so prevalent that many of us are exposed to small amounts of the substance through the years, and most of us do not go on to develop serious illness.

Among other places, asbestos may be found in roofing and siding; in textured paint and stucco; in vinyl floor tiles; in the lining of hot water or steam pipes; and even in artificial ashes used in gas-fired fireplaces.

Bill Patterson, owner of Action Building Services in Bowie, a company that provides home inspections for would-be buyers, noted that in lots of houses built in the 1960s, asbestos is commonly found in cement slabs used in the exterior. However, this and other applications of the material, when intact, pose less of a risk.

“People freak when they hear about it,” Mr. Patterson says. “But I’ve lived in Bowie houses since 1961, and my parents still live in the Buckingham section, and I’ve never heard of anyone with ill effects” from asbestos.

Guidelines on the EPA’s Web site (www.epa.gov/iaq/asbestos.html) suggest that undamaged asbestos material in the home simply be left alone, as long as it is not in danger of being damaged, broken or otherwise disturbed. For this reason, those considering home repair or renovation projects — from reflooring to replacing the door of a wood stove — need to ensure that the work won’t disturb asbestos-filled materials.

“People will go in and start renovations [without] knowing there is a strong possibility of finding asbestos and exposing the whole family,” says Daniel Freeman, president of Envirotex LLC, an asbestos removal contracting/consulting firm in Warrenton, Va.

Hiring a licensed asbestos inspector should be the first step before embarking on many minor or major home projects, Mr. Freeman says. The typical course of action is for a consultant to take samples of materials that might contain asbestos, following EPA guidelines, and send them off for analysis, he says. Then an abatement plan can be drawn up and implemented.

Experts also recommend hiring one firm to inspect for asbestos and a second to handle its abatement, to avoid any conflict of interest that may harm the consumer.

“I would say that 10 percent of the time, no asbestos is found,” says Mr. Freeman, who founded his company in 2000 and now has 40 employees.

As for Mr. Nixon, who sold his condo and moved in with relatives temporarily, his home search continues. When it comes to asbestos awareness, he is the wiser for it.

“I asked my Realtor if he thought I was being unreasonable” by discounting a prospective home because it might have asbestos in it, Mr. Nixon says. “And he said, ‘If it makes you feel uncomfortable, you shouldn’t buy it.’ ”

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