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Toxic asbestos products in older homes an ongoing threat
As if hurricanes, floods, and breached levees were not enough for Louisiana homeowners to worry about, you might want to give some thought to the materials used in your home’s original construction, especially if it was built before 1980. The Chinese drywall fiasco after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was bad enough. But a dangerous contaminant could have been lurking in your home long before that.
Following the end of World War II, housing construction across Louisiana and elsewhere increased dramatically as servicemen returned from the war, took civilian jobs, married, and needed homes in which to raise their families. With the G.I. Bill enabling returning servicemen to make home purchases with no down-payment, the housing industry skyrocketed, forever transforming the Louisiana landscape as suburban tract homes were mass-produced by the thousands.
The population of Louisiana grew by almost 100,000 from 1940 to 1960, leading to a shortage of housing in Louisiana and other states. The earliest post-war houses built to meet Louisiana’s pressing need for shelter were small, box-like affairs known as “GI Specials”. While most of these houses have long since been enlarged or razed, there are still good examples of the original style near Chennault Air Base in Lake Charles. The classic “ranch house” in suburbia also came into its own during this time, as middle-class Louisianans began to see owning a home on a leafy, suburban street as their ticket to the American dream.
The mid-century housing boom coincided with a massive proliferation of home construction products that included the natural mineral asbestos. Widely acclaimed for its strength, insulating and fire-resistant properties, asbestos fibers were incorporated into everything from floor tile and interior paints to siding and roof shingles throughout the 1900s.
Manufacturers have known since the 1930s that the inhalation and ingestion of asbestos is extremely toxic. Microscopic asbestos fibers can settle into the linings of the lungs or abdomen and fester there for decades, eventually building up enough scar tissue to impair breathing or abdominal function and cause cancer. In about 2,500 people per year, carcinogenic asbestos fibers can lead to an aggressive and hard-to-treat malignancy known as mesothelioma. Mesothelioma cancer is known to be caused only by exposure to asbestos. Therefore, it is wise to be aware of the numerous asbestos products that might still be present in your home today.
Many Louisiana homes constructed in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s were outfitted with asphalt, linoleum, or vinyl floor tiles laid down in high-traffic areas such as kitchens and bathrooms. Those tiles, and even some sheet-flooring, were frequently manufactured with asbestos fibers to provide durability and sound-deadening qualities underfoot. Amazingly, this type of floor covering was commonly filled with more than fifty percent asbestos fibers by weight. In addition to the floor covering itself, the glue used to install the tiles or sheet-flooring often also contained asbestos.
Now, decades later, your original asphalt or vinyl tile floors might have long since been covered over with carpeting. But be forewarned. While all shapes and sizes of old floor tile might contain asbestos, if the asphalt or vinyl tiles that lurk beneath your carpet, or continue to greet you every day in your foyer or kitchen, happen to measure nine by nine inches, they are almost certain to contain asbestos.
Starting in the 1920s, interior plasters incorporated chrysotile, amphibole and other mineral asbestos fibers primarily for fire resistance and strength. If your house is old enough to have been constructed before the age of sheetrock panels, you should assume the plaster in your lath walls contains some asbestos fiber.
Other wall coatings also utilized asbestos, starting with joint compound. Also known as sheetrock-mud or drywall-mud, this product was (and still is) the first layer to go over a sheetrock or gypsum board wall. Interestingly, except for asbestos-cement boards and other insulated, fire-rated wall sheets, drywall by itself does not typically contain asbestos.
By the time the Second World War ended in 1945, gypsum-filled boards (sheetrock) had become the principal home-construction material in Louisiana and the rest of the United States. America’s postwar building boom spurred the popularity of drywall even more, as housing developers realized they could erect sheetrock walls in a single-family home in as little as two days instead of a week or more with plaster.
But unlike plaster, with its wall-length seamlessness, sheetrock panels were applied every four feet across a wall, creating multiple seams with accompanying nail or screw depressions. Joint compound, containing asbestos, became the go-to material for covering these imperfections. From the 1930s through the early 1980s, joint compound typically contained up to six percent asbestos, which improved the working texture of the material. Wall-joint compound typically came in powdered form, was mixed with water and troweled on, left to dry, and then sanded smooth.
On top of a layer of wall-joint compound, other asbestos-containing finishes were sometimes applied for decorative effect. Old-fashioned plaster containing asbestos, for example, was often used to achieve a rough-hewn or mottled appearance or was applied in swirled, combed and other ornamental patterns. Textured paints gained popularity in the 1960s for the same reason, with the clumpy, irregular “texture” often supplied by asbestos fibers.
In addition to ornamental plasters and interior finish coatings, some decorative boards also contained asbestos. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, interior panels by several manufacturers contained asbestos as a component. GAF-Ruberoid marketed an asbestos interior paneling called “GAF Hearth-Glow All-Mineral Interior Wall Covering”, which was made to look like brick and mortar for a rustic look on family room walls, and for decorative use behind electric woodstoves and faux fireplaces in place of real brick. Asbestos-filled wall-paneling sold during that era also featured cedar, pine and other wood grains.
Like countless American homes constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, many Louisiana tract houses were built with textured ceilings. Popularly known as “popcorn” finishes, paint mixed with asbestos and cellulose, vermiculite, or wood fiber was commonly sprayed or troweled onto the ceilings of residential hallways, bathrooms, and bedrooms. While the cellulose “filler” components helped to increase the “bumpiness” factor of the texture, asbestos fiber contributed additional lumps and also acted as a binding agent, making the thickened paint easier to spray and spread without separating.
Almost as ubiquitous as popcorn ceilings in suburban Louisiana homes were interior ceiling tiles. These lightweight, perforated 12-inch by 12-inch tiles contained asbestos from the 1950s through the 1970s. United States Gypsum, for instance, manufactured “USG ceiling tiles” which contained asbestos from 1967 through 1976.
One of the most popular ways for builders and homeowners to “customize” a standard suburban tract home was to give it a different exterior finish from its neighbors. Sold as regular stock and available for special order at almost any hardware store across America in the second half of the 20th century, exterior siding by several manufacturers contained asbestos as a component. Asbestos fibers were incorporated into exterior siding because the mineral was inexpensive and provided resistance to rodents, wood-eating pests, and fire. Asbestos siding was offered in a variety of styles and patterns, such as Johns Manville’s “Cedargrain” and GAF-Ruberoid’s “Panelstone”, “Shake-Tex” and “Grain-Tex”.
Believe it or not, roof shingles containing asbestos were being manufactured in the United States as early as 1910, beginning a worldwide explosion of asbestos roofing products by many manufacturers, which continued unabated into the early 1980s. Building codes in some Louisiana municipalities actually mandated the use of asbestos-containing asphalt or cement shingles to reduce the danger of fire spread. In fact, the launch in 1916 of a campaign by the National Board of Fire Underwriters to eliminate wood-shingled roofs in favor of asbestos-containing asphalt roof tiles led to a requirement by the National Building Code to use asbestos roofing in all federally financed homes, such as those underwritten by the Veterans Administration, starting in 1943, a regulation that remained in force until 1985.
Cutting through asbestos flooring with a linoleum knife might not seem to produce much dust, but asbestos fibers are microscopic. They cannot be seen with the naked eye. Drilling or sawing through asbestos plaster or sheetrock walls produces airborne particulate matter that can include carcinogenic asbestos particles. Scraping off old “popcorn” ceiling texture produces lots of dangerous dust and debris. Sawing through exterior asbestos siding or roof shingles exposes you to millions of deadly asbestos fibers.
Suburban homeownership truly was the American dream for many Louisiana residents after the second world war. It’s understandable to want to upgrade your home’s aging interior and exterior so that it continues to be a source of pride and joy. Just don’t let your mid-century domicile become a 21st century asbestos cancer nightmare. Before beginning any construction project in an older house, check with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to see if there is asbestos in one or more of your home’s components. Be sure to use only asbestos inspectors and abatement professionals accredited by the Louisiana DEQ to inspect and remove or safely encapsulate any asbestos found in your home.
Building-product manufacturers knew the asbestos in their products was deadly. Yet the mineral was so inexpensive and easy to procure that corporate executives purposely kept the danger secret in order to maximize sales of their merchandise to an unsuspecting public. Now, those manufacturers are being sued for sickening thousands of mid-century Louisiana homebuilders who are just now being diagnosed with devastating asbestos diseases.
If you have been diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, it is important to seek legal counsel as soon as possible. Baron & Budd can help. Contact us online or call us at 855-280-7664 for a confidential evaluation and to learn more about your legal options.