Friday, January 26, 2007
Hidden danger lurks in home

Asbestos chases a family from their Huntington beach home, costs them tens of thousands of dollars to clean up, and makes them question how many others might be at risk.

Special to the Register

It is Halloween afternoon and Jeni Kumaric is telling a story about monsters. This monster lurked under the floor of her Huntington Beach home.

Last year, it chased Kumaric and her family from their home. It rampaged through the house, taking away almost all their belongings – their clothing, beds and bedding, sofas and other furniture, even the children’s toys – and cost them tens of thousands of dollars.

Then, just when they thought it was safe to return home, the danger sprang back, this time from the ceiling. For months again the family has fought to keep the monster away.

Its name: asbestos.

When Jeni and her husband bought their 1964-era home four years ago, they had a home inspection before the purchase. But, like typical inspections, it didn’t specifically mention the home had a vinyl floor that contained asbestos. Instead it simply stated that a home of that era could have asbestos-containing materials.

Asbestos is a mineral fiber found in rocks that is a virtually indestructible. Because of its strength and thermal qualities, asbestos fibers are used as a binder and fire retardant.

The microscopic fibers, thousands of times smaller than a human hair and invisible to the eye, can become lodged in the respiratory system and lead to asbestosis, cancer and other diseases. Symptoms may not appear for 10 years or longer. As many as 10,000 people a year, mostly exposed on the job, die of asbestos-related illnesses. Because of the health risk, the use of asbestos in building materials was banned in 1978.

Homeowners in Southern California have good reason for concern. Asbestos was used widely in home construction here, through building booms into the 1970s. Officials say that almost all homes built here through the 1950s almost certainly have asbestos in insulation and other materials. Some homes built in Orange County have a type of siding, called transite, that is almost pure asbestos.

The asbestos-containing material is only a potential threat, and in most cases poses no risk if left alone and in place. In fact, that is the best advice officials offer: If you have asbestos, leave it alone. The danger comes if it is improperly handled, especially when being removed.

Kumaric only became aware of the potential danger when a neighbor had a flood and Jeni saw specially clad workers doing cleanup efforts.

The vinyl that bonds the asbestos fibers makes the tile stable and relatively nontoxic so long as it or the asbestos-laden glue that attaches it is not improperly removed. So when Kumaric hired a contractor in March to replace her carpeting and padding, she specifically warned him not to disturb the tiles.

“I told the flooring guy, ‘Don’t touch the tiles.’” Jeni, then seven months pregnant, took her two children, ages 4 and 3, to go to the park to get out of the workers’ way.

When she came back she discovered that the contractor had ripped up tiles.

“He had lifted up and broken the tile into pieces. There was dust and debris everywhere. I knew we had a problem right away.”

Kumaric immediately hired a company to test. The company, EnviroCheck, found asbestos in the tiles and also in the mastic, or glue, that held the tiles to the concrete subfloor. The predicament is not unusual for them.

“We handle one to two situations like this every day,” said John Meador of EnviroCheck. “A contractor is demolishing a kitchen and just forgets to test. If you test in advance it could cost $25. But if you don’t do it right, a cleanup could cost $30,000 or more.”

The family hired a separate company certified to do asbestos cleanup. Because the dust had settled throughout the home, they decided to throw out anything it might cling to.

“We spent $25,000 just on the cleanup,” Jeni said. “Then I had to throw away everything in the house that was porous – our couches, chairs, rugs, curtains, towels, blankets. All of our clothing. Our mattresses, bedding and pillows. I even had to throw out the kids’ stuffed animals.”

They contacted their homeowners’ insurer and learned they had a common stipulation that damages due to asbestos contamination are not covered. At that point she figured they were out about $57,000 for all the cleaning and replacement of items.

“The environmental guy said you don’t have to throw everything away but if you don’t I can’t guarantee that the items are not contaminated. I was especially concerned having two young children and by then, 8 months pregnant, bringing home a newborn. Children that young are more vulnerable. I didn’t want to take any chances.”

The family lived in a hotel, then an apartment, while the house got cleaned up. Meanwhile, she had a baby. When it was time to move back, Kumaric discovered one of several quirks about asbestos regulation – there is no concrete standard for when a home is contaminated, and no standard for when a home is once again safe to live in.

“They did a test used for cleanup in schools as a standard, but even so our house still tested positive for asbestos fibers. I was upset and afraid about bringing a new baby back to the home. I went on the Internet and found that one asbestos fiber can cause lung cancer. Here I was bringing a newborn back into the home, its first week of life, and asbestos is like barbed wire, the way it attaches.”

Kumaric paid an additional $1,200 for testing to check the home, and persuaded the cleanup company to come back and rescrub all the surfaces.

“We had it recleaned, they wiped the walls and floors, we brought in HEPA air filters. Finally, we just decided to move back in, but I was never comfortable. I just prayed to God that my kids wouldn’t breathe any asbestos.”

Then, at the end of September, they had a heating problem.

"Our furnace ducts were falling off the plenum (where the furnace attaches to ductwork), so we hired a company to fix it. They came out and said, ‘You have asbestos. We can’t fix it until you get the asbestos removed.’ "

They had asbestos in the attic, where the furnace connected to ducts, and in the furnace closet.

“So we did the whole cleanup thing again. It wasn’t as bad this time because it hadn’t turned to dust and spread. We moved out and had a different asbestos company do the cleaning. Meanwhile we were paying to rent a house or staying with friends.”

Again, when testing was done after the cleanup the house registered low in asbestos, but not zero. After the family had additional cleaning done, the home finally tested completely clear in November.

“I don’t think most people understand the risk,” Jeni said. “They remove asbestos themselves, maybe inadvertently. I have seen neighbors pulling it out themselves, in homes just like ours.”](“”)