The Dangers of Air Duct Cleaning: Asbestos
Client: “My tenant is having a hard time breathing and believes there may be hidden mold in the basement. Can you inspect it and give me some recommendations?”
Problem: This is one of the most common inquiries we receive. Usually, people feel they have a problem before they can ever really see it in front of them. In all of these cases, our goal is to provide comprehensive mold inspections to confirm or deny the presence of mold and to develop a proper plan of action, if necessary.
The client in this case study is an elderly woman, who had divided her large East Ottawa home into three apartments. She lives on the main level, and rents out the spacious upper level to her son and the basement to a family friend. Because she is widowed, she relies on contractors and service professionals to help her with all of the things she can no longer do herself.
She hired us to provide a thorough and unbiased assessment of her basement apartment in order to diagnose the reason why her tenant was experiencing unpleasant symptoms.
This situation, however, took a drastic turn for the worse the moment we walked into the basement and noticed something that the elderly landlord was completely oblivious to: asbestos.
Exposed asbestos insulating wraps were found throughout the basement area, covering the duct work and heat registers. Although not uncommon for a home build in this time period, it was certainly a shock for the homeowner, who had been living there for over 40 years without any knowledge of it being present.
Asbestos duct wrap is a material that resembles white paper. It adheres to the sheet metal and acts as a thermal insulator. One of the dangers is that it degrades over time, and this disturbs the material, dislodging asbestos fibers into the air. Once inhaled, asbestos has the potential to cause serious consequences, such as asbestosis of the lungs or mesothelioma.
Exposed duct wrap is an even bigger threat since it can be easily hit, scraped, bumped and disturbed without anyone being aware that they’ve just disturbed the hazardous material.
Worst of all, because duct wrap tends to surround HVAC systems, disturbed asbestos fibres can often enter the air ducts and spread throughout the entire home.
What We Uncovered Next Really Made Us Worry…
We noticed these little black duct plugs in different places throughout the basement. Usually, this is a good sign because it indicates that the ducts were cleaned at some point (which always makes us happy).
In this case, however, this made us worry… a lot.
Notice how the plug is going through the asbestos wrap into the duct work? This means that the frayed ends of the asbestos material could actually be inside the duct, allowing disturbed asbestos fibers to circulate through the air handling system and into the ambient living space.
This was carelessness or ignorance at its peak, as far as residential indoor environmental parameters go. These plugs seemed relatively new to us, which means they were used within the last 3 to 5 years. Doing so, can create additional disturbance within the environment where this wrap is located.
We checked the furnace to see when it was last serviced. To our amazement, it has been regularly serviced and cleaned! In the image below, we have blurred out the company logo as well as the names of the workers involved. But what you can see is that the furnace had been last serviced in September 2018. (We conducted our assessment just a few months later.)
We informed our client of the situation that we just uncovered. She was floored.
In all of the years that she had been hiring contractors and other professionals to help her around the home, not a single one had ever mentioned the suspicious asbestos-like material exposed in her basement.
What worried her the most is that she regularly made trips to her basement to do laundry. Directly above her head was the asbestos-containing material that had been disturbed by the air duct cleaners.
We wanted to know something: was this company aware of the potential risk they were posing to themselves and to this client? So, we called them!
To protect the identity of our client, we claimed to be inquiring about their duct cleaning services on behalf of our technician’s father. We mentioned that we found what appeared to be asbestos wrapping around the duct work and asked how to proceed. Below is a brief clip of that recorded phone call.
To be fair, the duct cleaning company did have some knowledge about asbestos. As you can hear in the recording, they even knew that disturbance of asbestos materials is bad. And although we didn’t expect them to have in-depth understanding of asbestos abatement protocols, we were surprised at the technicians’ negligence in informing the client of the potential for danger due to possible asbestos around the duct work and in taking precautions not to disturb the material when cleaning the ducts!
The most unfortunate part of this story is that this isn’t the first time we have come across this type of scenario, and, unfortunately, it probably won’t be the last. We know that education and awareness is key – not only for homeowners, but also for service professionals and companies whom we entrust to do a safe and proper job! Our environment hazards resource page is a great start.
Instead of creating additional stress for our elderly client by relaying all of the information gathering we took on while researching this company, we simply chose to put together a thorough asbestos abatement plan to remove all of the ACMs (asbestos-containing materials) from around, and within the ducts throughout the entire home.
The client hired us to remove the asbestos-containing materials, properly clean the ducts, and to ensure all residual materials throughout the home were HEPA vacuumed and disinfected.
The asbestos air quality tests collected throughout the home after the remediation was completed revealed normal fiber counts, and our client has recently informed us that she intends on consulting a lawyer regarding the negligence of the air duct cleaning company.
Whatever the outcome is for our client, we are happy that we were able to identify and remove these hazardous materials from her home. At the same time, we hope that we have been able to educate her on common household hazards as well as to be more vigilant when choosing contractors.
We’re more than just mold inspectors. We care and we’re here to help.
Improving quality of life, through quality of service.
Author: John Ward, Mold Busters
Published: January 4, 2019
Updated: May 1, 2019