Asbestos is hardly a new issue in the renovation business, but the fact is until a recent project (gallery forthcoming) I had never had to deal with it. That's not to say I'd never come across it, but unless you are going to remove or otherwise disturb the asbestos-containing material, in our jurisdiction you can just leave it as is. And that's what we chose to do ... "let sleeping dogs" lie and all that.
But for the project in question we were going to have to remove some walls, strip out the old floor down to the subfloor to allow for a new hardwood floor throughout the hose, and change the location of a window and door. Asbestos, if it existed, was going to get disturbed and that's bad.
Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that in the past has been used as fire protection, insulation, and a strengthener in plaster. Trouble is it has also been shown to cause lung cancer and other health issues. It had been used up until the early 1980's (pretty much banned as a building material since) so any home you're looking at that's older that this asbestos will be a potential concern.
For my project we had the flooring, plaster, insulation and exterior stucco all tested. We gathered samples from each area, sealed them individually in Zip-loc bags, and brought them to a local testing lab. There's a small fee associated to test each sample (our total was around $300) and we had the results in a week. The only area with asbestos was the floor. Old linoleum tile is a frequent culprit it seems.
The next step was calling in the abatement contractor. I don't know about you, but the word "abatement" used to invoke images of men in space suits and a building draped in white plastic à la "E.T.". Turns out that only the most extreme cases involve this. The real issue is containing the area with the asbestos, and ensuring there is a pressure situation that forces all the potentially contaminated air through a filter. Workers all wear appropriate protection (masks and suits) and once the work is done the air is checked and re-checked to ensure there are no asbestos particles in the air.
The work in question only took 3 days ... I had the abatement contractor remove all the plaster and insulations as well (while they were in there). In the end I received the reports the abatement contractor submitted to show the work was done properly and completely. All in all a very painless procedure. True there is an added cost to your project, but the safety of the workers and homeowners make it more than worth the expense.
For more information on asbestos and home renovations, have a look at this terrific summary provided by WorksafeBC.