How to Spot Asbestos in Your Old Apartment

Asbestos is fire-resistant natural mineral found mostly in homes built before 1980. Widely used in building materials, it is usually safe if left intact. If it comes apart from wear or during renovations, its tiny particles can be inhaled and embedded in the lungs. Homeowners and renters are especially at risk, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has rules to protect them.


People who are around the material in massive quantities or over long periods of time are more likely to get sick than those with brief exposures, but the EPA warns that no amount is considered safe. Even people who experience second-hand exposure are at risk, and the likelihood of developing a related illness never diminishes or goes away. The toxin can cause several types of cancer, but the most severe is mesothelioma, a rare malignancy that affects the lining of the lungs, heart, or abdominal cavity. Symptoms may not show up for 30 to 50 years, and there is no cure. 

Where Is it?

Because it is an inexpensive, resilient building material, manufacturers used it in a wide range of building products over the years. It can be found in exterior and interior locations, particularly in these locations:

  • Sealants and caulking compounds
  • Heating system ductwork
  • Plumbing
  • Flooring
  • Exterior siding
  • Insulation

Regulations from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Association don’t necessarily require landlords to remove the material from old buildings, but they must warn renters of its presence. If the building was built before the late 1970s or if the owner plans to do all the repairs himself, OSHA requires a safety inspection. Some states also have their own rules, but federal regulations still apply.

Renter Protection?

If hazardous particles become airborne, renters may need to take legal action to make sure the threat is removed. If a simple request doesn’t work, threatening to withhold the rent until the living space is healthy or pursuing legal action may be necessary.

If the landlord refuses to make the dwelling safe and renters stay, knowing it could damage their health, they can’t hold the owner responsible if they get sick. If the landlord refuses to remove known toxic material, however, renters can sue.

In another scenario, renters may inhale airborne toxins that the landlord is either aware of or should be aware of. Then, the owner becomes liable for any injuries to the tenants.

How can residents stay safe during removal?

Renters should make sure landlords use trained professionals to handle the removal and recycling of all toxic materials. The Homeowners and Renter’s Guide to asbestos Cleanup after Disasters provides a step-by-step guide, and professionals recommend these three safety measures:

  • If not damaged or disturbed, leave it alone.
  • If possible, encapsulate material that is not crumbling or soft.
  • Enclose it by putting something around or over it, e.g., wood planks over asphalt floor tiles. The use of trained workers to remove environmental hazards doesn’t mean it’s safe to stay in the apartment during removal. Renters need to find another place to live.

Residents of older apartments need not panic if they find out they have asbestos products, but those who question their safety should ask landlords to test for airborne fibers and make necessary repairs. Removal is the owner’s responsibility, but renters should avoid needless risk. Any preventable exposure to the substance is one too many.