Damage to materials that contain asbestos can be a serious issue. Many materials containing asbestos pose no real threat as long as they remain undisturbed. As soon as asbestos-containing materials are damaged or disturbed, asbestos fibers can be released into the air. Once it is released, asbestos can be inhaled and can cause serious health issues such as mesothelioma, pleural plaques, asbestosis, and lung cancer.
Asbestos-containing materials can be inadvertently damaged in any number of ways. Any activity that involves drilling, hammering, cutting, sawing, breaking, moving, or otherwise disturbing or damaging asbestos-containing materials can release asbestos fibers into the air. Before performing any of these actions on any material, take precautions to make sure that it does not contain asbestos. Asbestos-containing materials are most commonly damaged during refurbishing, repairing, or maintenance operations. They can also be damaged during the installation of computer wires, telephone cables, fire alarms, light fittings, blinds, shelving, or when moving goods or equipment. In some cases, asbestos fibers can even be disturbed by frequent handling or even by heavy airflow. If you are unsure whether a material contains asbestos, the safest course of action is to assume that it does contain asbestos and to treat it as such.
If asbestos-containing materials are only slightly damaged and are in a low-traffic area, limiting access to the area and ensuring that the materials are not touched or disturbed may be sufficient to prevent the release of asbestos fibers. In the case of more serious damage, the area should be immediately vacated and precautions should be taken to ensure that no one enters. Absolutely do not attempt to clean up the asbestos yourself, especially by dusting, sweeping, or vacuuming—doing so will only disturb fibers further. After sealing off the area, contact a trained asbestos professional, who will either repair or remove the asbestos-containing material.
If the asbestos professional chooses to repair the asbestos-containing material, the asbestos will remain in the building but will be sealed or covered. Sealing, also called encapsulation, involves using a sealant to bind the asbestos fibers together or to coat the material so that the fibers cannot be released. Covering, also called enclosure, involves placing some other material over the asbestos-containing material to prevent asbestos fibers from being released. Repair is often less costly than removal but can make later removal more difficult and costly.
If the building is being remodeled, or if the asbestos-containing material is damaged so severely that it cannot be repaired, the asbestos-containing material may have to be removed completely. Removal is much more costly and difficult than repair, and improper removal of asbestos-containing materials can actually increase the danger of exposure to asbestos fibers. So it is very important to make sure that the asbestos professional performing the removal of asbestos-containing materials is properly trained and licensed.