Asbestos is most often in the news when it is discovered in a school, apartment building, or other public structure. But asbestos can also be found in houses, particularly older ones. Though asbestos has not been widely used in building materials since the early 1970s, its extensive use as an insulator and fire retardant for much of the twentieth century means that it will remain a concern for some time to come. A house built with materials made with asbestos is not necessarily dangerous. In most cases, as long as an asbestos-containing product is intact and not disintegrating, it poses no health risks. With age, asbestos may deteriorate and become air-borne.

Asbestos comes from a group of silicate minerals that naturally separate into long, thin, durable fibers. It becomes a hazard when it breaks up into air-borne particles. If inhaled, these particles may cause asbestosis, a condition of irreversible scarring of lung tissue; lung cancer; and malignant mesothelioma, a cancer of the inner lining of the chest or abdomen. Asbestos can also cause cancer of the throat, larynx, and gastrointestinal tract. These cancers have a long latency period, from ten to fifty years. As with dust and smoke particles, harmful compounds in the air may attach to asbestos particles and lodge themselves in the lungs along with the asbestos.

The degree of health risk associated with asbestos increases with the degree of exposure. The vulnerability of children to air-borne pollutants in general makes asbestos exposure more risky for them. For this reason, determine whether your house contains any asbestos before your child is born. Even if you find asbestos-containing items, you may not need to do anything but monitor them. If it's necessary, any clean-up can be done before your baby comes home from the hospital.

Where Can Asbestos Be Found in Your Home?

Asbestos fibers can be spun and woven into cloth or mixed into cement and other materials for use in insulation, pipe wrapping, ceiling tiles, vinyl flooring and adhesives, beam coverings, fire-protection panels, roofing and siding shingles, fuse-box liners, drywall joint compound, texturized ceiling paint and soundproofing materials, paper or millboard near woodburning stoves, furnaces, stoves, hair dryers, ironing board covers, hot pads, and fireproof gloves. U.S. manufacturers no longer use asbestos in most consumer and building products. But older homes and appliances may contain asbestos, as might some newer imported products.

Identification and removal of asbestos is best left to professionals. If you suspect that your home may have been constructed with asbestos-containing materials, have a professional asbestos manager or laboratory assess your home. If you disturb what turns out to be asbestos, you may release small particles into the air and expose everyone in the house. You can obtain the names of laboratories accredited for asbestos testing by the EPA by contacting your state or local health department or the National Institute for Standards and Technology Laboratory Accreditation Program. Both visual inspections and laboratory testing may be required to determine whether any asbestos is present and the extent to which it may be airborne. If asbestos is found and it's still intact, asbestos abatement (removal or encapsulation) may not be required. Removal is generally the most expensive way to deal with an asbestos problem and poses the most risk for fiber release. It is only necessary if damage to the asbestos-containing material is extensive or you are undertaking construction on your home that would disturb asbestos material.

Be suspicious of flooring made of vinyl, rubber, or asphalt, and very old appliances. Old flooring that is in good condition is safe. But if you decide to replace suspect flooring, have a professional do it. Subflooring may also contain asbestos. Do not remove, sand, or use abrasive brushes on flooring or subflooring that might contain asbestos. Cooking or wood-burning stoves, clothes dryers, electric blankets, or hair dryers made before 1979 may contain asbestos. Contact the manufacturer to find out for sure. (Have the model number and age of the product on hand when you call.) You can also call the EPA Asbestos Ombudsman to obtain more information about appliances containing asbestos. Unidentifiable old appliances with heating elements should be dealt with cautiously.

If you see a gray dust accumulating under insulated pipes, from ducts, or from other construction materials in your house, be careful. Have it tested by an EPA-approved laboratory. (Wearing gloves and dust mask, very carefully scoop up some of the dust and place it a tightly sealed container, then send to the lab.) Do not vacuum or sweep up the dust-both will disperse it; instead, moisten the dust first, then clean it up with a wet mop.

You can obtain more information about asbestos and asbestos abatement from the EPA's Toxic Substances Control Act Hotline or your regional EPA office and your local office of the American Lung Association.

Excerpted from: Guideto Natural Baby Care, by Mindy Pennybackerand Aisha Ikramuddin