It used to be called “The Magic Mineral." The strange, fire-resistant fibers known as “asbestos" that are found in natural rock. By now, most people know asbestos has proven to be a major health hazard. The World Health Organization says half of workplace cancers worldwide are caused by asbestos. And several thousand deaths each year are attributed to asbestos in the home. So you might be surprised to learn that asbestos still being used in many products today, including in our houses. That’s today’s cover story.
Last year, Martin Connell and his family bought their very first home— in Boynton Beach, Florida. The day after they closed the deal on the house, a contractor they hired for renovations bore bad news.
Connell: He took one look at the ceiling and said, It's going to have asbestos.
Sharyl Attkisson: It was like a popcorn ceiling?
Connell: Yeah, with the spray-on popcorn. So he took a sample, called us back a few hours later, and said, it tested positive. Unfortunately, there's nothing I can do for you.
More tests found more asbestos.
Sharyl: The house was covered with it?
Connell: Yeah. So they had to come in and they had to take out every piece of drywall. Everything had to come down. The bathrooms basically are demolished, a lot of the AC work got damaged during it. All the insulation had to come out.
Sharyl: But you did a home inspection and it didn't turn that up?
Connell: Correct. Here in the state of Florida, the asbestos inspection is not part of a pre-real estate purchase inspection.
Sharyl: And you're a firefighter, and you didn't have any idea about that?
Connell: Nobody seems to have any idea about it. The contractors that I'm talking to, they have no idea about it. I was calling Senator's offices, Congresswomen and men's offices, nobody had any clue that asbestos is still here in Florida, that contractors are allowed to build with it here in Florida.
This is more than the story of one family's disaster. It turns out a hodgepodge of laws and regulations across the country mean many homeowners could find themselves in the very same boat. Like a lot of Americans, the Connells thought asbestos had been banned—years ago. So what happened?
Fire-resistant asbestos became a multi-billion dollar industry and was used in thousands of products in construction, shipyards and households. The history and dangers of asbestos have been documented in numerous videos and films… like “Evil Dust.”
According to the World Health Organization, all forms of asbestos can cause cancer when people breathe the fibers into their lungs. By the 1980’s, there were so many asbestos cancer victims, chemical companies started up massive asbestos trust funds to pay injured workers and their families. Today, about 60 companies have set aside more than $30 billion.
Dr. Arthur Frank is a Professor of Public Health and Medicine at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He always keeps an asbestos sample on hand—sealed in plastic for safety.
Dr. Frank: People think that asbestos is now no longer either used or legal in the United States, which is not true. But some 60 or so countries in the world, some going back more than 30 years now have totally banned the use of asbestos. And that number keeps growing. But here in the United States, it is still legal. The Environmental Protection Agency in 1989 tried to ban the use of asbestos. The industry fought it, took it to to a particular circuit court in the federal system that was friendly to industry and the ban was overturned, so that it remains in this country a legal and usable product.
That means today asbestos is still found in products from ironing board covers, toasters and hair dryers… to bowling balls. And, in a lot of homes.
Dr. Frank: It could be in the form of asbestos floor tile. It could be pipe wrap in the basement. It could be insulation around the boiler. It could be blown in insulation in the attic or sheets of asbestos that were unrolled. I suspect that most home inspectors don't think to look for it in part because it's not required, as it should be, under a retail sales contracts for homes.
We sought interviews with representatives of the asbestos industry but couldn’t find anyone willing to talk with us. In the past, an industry spokesman said it’s possible to use asbestos in a controlled and safe fashion. "We have known for many years that asbestos can be safely and securely bound in today's products, as long as carefully controlled manufacturing and installation processes are employed.”
We found a worker safety video from Canada—which used to be a major producer of asbestos—implying there’s only risk when the asbestos products are broken open.
Martin Connell says he wasn’t wiling to take a chance.
Connell: You live in a home, you put up a shelf, you hang a photo, you put a hole in the wall, you're now being exposed. You're going to live there for the next 30 years. You're exposing yourself and your family over the life of, living there the 30 years.
The question is how they would pay to clear their new home of asbestos.
Sharyl: Did insurance pay for any of this?
Connell: Insurance does not cover anything asbestos-related in this state. State of Florida allows contractors to build with asbestos, the state of Florida writes the insurance policies that will not cover anything asbestos-related.
For the Connells, the costs are enormous. On top of the mortgage for their $262-thousand dollar home they couldn’t live in during renovations… they had to pay rent for an apartment plus $250 dollars a month to extend the lease. That doesn’t count the cost of the asbestos removal.
Sharyl: Do you know how much money this is going to cost you when it's over?
Connell: We're probably going to be almost $50,000 when we're done.
Sharyl: Where are you getting the money?
Connell: Loans. Loans and credit cards.
Sharyl: Davina, you thought you were getting into a great house. What's it been like for you?
Davina: It's just sad. The kids really wanted to come home and pick their rooms and decorate. We thought it was going to be minimal stuff. And we're technically starting from scratch. We're rebuilding our home.
The EPA announced in 2016 that it was evaluating asbestos risk as required under a law passed two years ago --but wouldn’t tell us where they are in that process.