As a highly respected orthopedic surgeon, Geoffrey Newton certainly possessed the income to hire contractors to renovate his kitchen and bathrooms. When the family’s boiler needed to be replaced, his profession afforded him the ability to hire an HVAC specialist.

Yet according to the U.K.’s Daily Mail, Newton loved to do it himself — and, sadly, his life ended as a result.

Newton, 81, of Great Britain, died of the deadly cancer mesothelioma caused by inhalation of asbestos fibers. It is suspected that the boiler replacement 37 years ago served as the culprit.

His wife Pat recalled that the project only took a couple of hours, but the boiler was loaded with asbestos. “I still remember all the white dust that came out of it,” she said.

Asbestos Once Hailed for Fireproofing Qualities

The naturally mined fibers became valuable for their fireproofing properties and were used extensively until the 1970s in heating systems and construction materials.

Eventually, it was discovered that when the microscopic fibers are inhaled, they become lodged in the lungs and sometimes form into chronic lung issues — or worse, the fatal cancer mesothelioma. The latency period for the cancer can be 20-50 years, as in the case of Newton.

Do-It-Yourself Aficionados: Beware

HGTV’s promotion of home renovation and design on their network shows has instigated an international passion for homeowners to take on construction projects that, at one time, most would only entrust to a professional contractor.

The internet hosts myriads of blogs chronicling DIY projects that primarily take place in older homes. What is less emphasized is the presence of the lethal asbestos and how home renovators should properly abate the material without putting themselves in danger as Newton did.

If you own a home built in the 1970s or earlier, certain products may contain the carcinogenic and highly dangerous fibers.

Common asbestos-containing products include: 

  • Vinyl floor tiles
  • Glues that attach floor tiles to concrete or wood
  • Some forms of linoleum
  • Window caulking and glazing
  • Roofing material (usually on flat roofs, but sometimes on shingles)
  • HVAC duct insulation (found in corrugated or flat paper form)
  • Siding material
  • Plaster
  • Some forms of paint
  • Popcorn ceilings
  • Insulation

The mere presence of asbestos-containing materials in a home does not necessarily constitute a danger since the fibers are encased in a material. The danger ensues when they become “friable,” meaning the strands release from the material because it has been disturbed by breakage or deterioration.

Television shows heralding the DIY movement often show homeowners heartily wielding sledgehammers to walls, floors, and cabinets. It’s obvious how these residents put themselves in danger if they are unaware of the presence and dangers of asbestos.

Exposed Asbestos Needs Careful Repair or Removal

Once discovered and identified, experts agree that DIY projects must be put aside so a professionally trained and accredited asbestos abatement company can assess the extent of the problem and how to manage it.

The repair involves either sealing or covering the material to keep the fibers encapsulated. For pipe, furnace, and boiler insulation, a protective wrap is placed around the old asbestos-filled material. For completely intact floor tile without any cracks or breaks, placing carpet or other flooring on top may be recommended.

Removal requires a complete protocol that should only be left to professional companies who know how to eradicate the material and dispose of it — without harming themselves or anyone in the process.

EPA Do’s and Don’ts for Homeowners

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ardently warns homeowners to take seriously the dangers of deadly asbestos and the resulting long term ramifications to one’s health after exposure.

If you’re involved in a DIY project and suspect you’ve encountered asbestos follow these critical instructions:

  • Leave undamaged asbestos-containing materials alone.
  • Keep activities to a minimum in areas where there is damaged asbestos, prohibiting children from entering the area.
  • Call in a trained and accredited asbestos professional.
  • Don’t dust, sweep, or vacuum debris that may contain asbestos.
  • Don’t saw, sand, scrape, or drill holes into asbestos-containing materials.
  • Don’t use abrasive pads or brushes on power strippers to strip wax from asbestos flooring.
  • Don’t sand or try to level asbestos flooring or its backing.
  • Don’t track through the house a material that could contain asbestos. Clean the material with a wet mop if the area can’t be avoided.

The Third Wave of Asbestos Victims

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) reports that an average of 13,000 to 15,000 Americans die every year as a result of asbestos exposure.

Experts classify asbestos exposure and resulting death in three waves. The first wave included those who initially mined the asbestos. The second includes those in industries that created and worked with construction materials that contained asbestos. And now the third wave: home renovators.

A survey from Trulia, an online real estate service, revealed that 9 out of 10 homeowners planned a remodeling project in 2019.

While the survey did not indicate whether that 90% would do the work themselves, it does show that home renovations remain forefront in homeowners’ minds. Certainly, some percentage of that number will take on projects without the help of professional contractors and possibly put themselves in jeopardy.

Dr. John Moore-Gillon, an honorary medical adviser to the British Lung Foundation, warns homeowners, “cases [of mesothelioma] will continue to rise if precautions aren’t taken.”

View Author and Sources
Sources
  1. Christodoulou, M. (2017, June 1). ‘This house killed’: DIY Home Renovators the third wave of asbestos victims. Retrieved from: https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/this-house-killed-me-diy-home-renovators-the-third-wave-of-asbestos-victims-20170531-gwh2x1.html
  2. Hodgekiss, A. (2012, August, 27). How a few minutes of DIY can end up costing you your life: Hidden Asbestos in homes putting millions at risk from deadly lung disease. Retrieved from: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2194460/How-minutes-DIY-cost-life-years-later-Hidden-asbestos-homes-putting-millions-risk-deadly-lung-disease.html
  3. Environmental Protection Agency. (2019). Protect Your Family from Exposure to Asbestos. Retrieved from: https://www.epa.gov/asbestos/protect-your-family-exposures-asbestos
  4. Snodgress, Lee. (2019). What You Need to Know About Asbestos. Retrieved from: https://www.thisoldhouse.com/more/what-you-need-to-know-about-asbestos
  5. Lee, A. (2019, Mar. 20). Remodeling on the Rise. Retrieved from: https://www.trulia.com/research/remodeling-on-the-rise/

Last modified: November 25, 2019