We recently had a reader ask us to highlight the problem of asbestos in private residences, so this is our topic of the week.

Asbestos is a group of six naturally occurring silicate minerals used commercially for their desirable physical properties. It is an affordable material that has sound-absorptive properties and is resistant to fire, heat, electrical and chemical damage.

The problem with asbestos is its fibrous composition. Fibers form as these minerals cool and crystallize, forming molecules, which line up parallel with each other, creating crystal lattices. When sufficient force is applied, these crystals break along their weakest direction, resulting in a fibrous form. This process of fracturing can keep occurring such that one large asbestos fiber can become the source of hundreds of thinner and smaller fibers.

Due to naturally occurring asbestos and general environmental exposure, we all actually have a large number of these fibers in our lungs, but at some level they become the cause of serious problems such as lung cancer, mesothelioma — cancer of the lining of the chest and abdominal cavity — and asbestosis where lungs become scarred with fibrous tissue.

Therefore, it behooves us to avoid excessive exposure to asbestos in any way we can.

Historically, asbestos-containing building materials were not as widely used in residences as in larger commercial and institutional buildings. Since the 1970s, most manufactured products do not contain asbestos. However, in homes built before that time, asbestos can be found in several areas.

For instance, some roofing and siding shingles on older homes are made of asbestos cement. Asbestos was used as insulation in many homes built between 1930 and 1950. It may be found in textured paint and patching compounds manufactured before 1977 (remember those ‘popcorn’ ceilings?), as well as in ceiling tiles. Asbestos is found in some vinyl floor tiles and in the backing of vinyl sheet flooring and adhesives. In older homes, hot water and steam pipes may be coated with an asbestos material or covered with an asbestos blanket or tape. Similarly, metal ductwork may also be wrapped with an asbestos material.

Asbestos has another characteristic, which is significant: It is categorized as either “friable” or “non-friable.” The friability of a product, which contains asbestos, is measured by how weak the structure of the product is — a friable product can be broken with simple finger-crushing pressure. Obviously, the ease with which these products can be damaged relates to their potential danger to the public as microscopic fibers are released into the air.

So, now that we are all paranoid, let’s talk about what to do if you think you have asbestos in your home. Usually, the best approach is to leave any suspicious material that is in good condition alone. Check the material regularly for signs of wear or damage, and if it deteriorates — or if you are remodeling the area — it needs to be dealt with by a professional. If you are remodeling your home, any competent contractor will do a complete survey of the affected area and will advise you if asbestos abatement will be an issue.

If you cannot just leave the asbestos alone, there are two types of corrective action that can be taken. One is repair, which generally means sealing or covering the asbestos so it no longer poses a danger. The other is removal of the product altogether. There are abatement firms that offer testing, assessment, and correction services, though it could conceivably be a conflict of interest to hire a firm for all three services. It may be better to use two different firms — one to assess the situation and another to remedy it.

It is important to carefully check the credentials of companies and individuals involved in this field, since you cannot tell by looking at a material if it contains asbestos, unless it is labeled, and fraud is a concern. After doing your due diligence in researching the firm, make sure you have a written contract specifying the work to be done and the applicable federal, state and local regulations the contractor must follow. You can contact your state and local health departments, EPA regional office, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration regional office to find out what regulations are applicable.

An Internet search on asbestos will bring up many sites with further information on this subject. It is just one more issue of modern-day life that requires some knowledge on the part of all homeowners and renters. We not only want our homes to be comfortable and beautiful, but safe for all who come within our walls.

Ann Robinson and Annie V. Schwemmer are the Principal Architects and co-founders of a residential architectural firm focused on life-changing remodeling designs at RenovationDesignGroup.com. Send comments or questions to ask@RenovationDesignGroup.com