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Asbestos assessments have become routine

Mesothelioma commercials on television, with their representations of health-impaired seniors, evoke a bizO-Metcalf_Richard_BizObygone era when asbestos was a cheap construction material in every day use in commercial buildings.

While asbestos is not the hot-button issue it once was, it remains a very real environmental concern. Most of those buildings are still around.

A commercial building’s age is the biggest indicator of whether asbestos is likely to be present.

“Buildings built prior to about 1971 have a likelihood of having some kind of asbestos-containing material,” said Richard Serna of Environmental Remediation Management Services in Albuquerque. “It does not negate the possibility of asbestos being found in buildings built after 1971. We’ve found asbestos in buildings built as recently as 1985.”

Employees of Environmental Remediation Management Services work on asbestos removal. The work area is kept wet to keep the dust down. (Courtesy of Environmental Remediation Management Services)

Employees of Environmental Remediation Management Services work on asbestos removal. The work area is kept wet to keep the dust down. (Courtesy of Environmental Remediation Management Services)

Of the 354 metro-area office buildings tracked by commercial real-estate services firm Colliers International, 22 percent were built in 1971 and earlier, research director Ken Schaefer said. About 63 percent of buildings were built in 1987 and earlier, he said.

A mineral fiber, asbestos was commonly used in insulation, vinyl flooring and wall and ceiling treatments through the 1950s. The federal government began to ban some uses in the 1970s, an effort that continued into the 1990s. Products containing asbestos are still produced, but in a generally safe form.

If the asbestos-containing material is in a crumbly condition or has been sawed, scraped or sanded into a powder, it is more likely to create a health hazard due to the potential for inhaling the fibers. The chief hazard is mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer. Symptoms usually do not appear until years after the first exposure.

The remediation or removal of asbestos-containing building material, typically as part of a renovation or demolition, must comply with government regulations such as those developed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

In Bernalillo County, the removal of asbestos-containing material is regulated by the city of Albuquerque’s Air Quality Division.

“Remediation is a form of controlled demolition,” Serna said. “The difference is our men wear (hazmat) suits and respirators. We control the dust and dispose of the material in a regulated way.”

Although OSHA has other regulations applying to employee exposure to workplace asbestos, commercial real estate is pretty much self-policing when it comes to the potential presence of asbestos in buildings, said commercial real-estate lawyer Larry Wells in Albuquerque.

A bag of building material containing asbestos awaits removal at a clean-up site in Albuquerque.

A bag of building material containing asbestos awaits removal at a clean-up site in Albuquerque.

The motivation to proactively address potential asbestos issues in a building has more to do with avoiding financing issues in a sale and less to do with potential legal liability to asbestos exposure claims by tenants, said Eric Laurence, who practices commercial real estate and environmental law in Albuquerque.

Lenders are concerned about the presence of asbestos because it can devalue the collateral – the property itself – by as much as 50 percent, according to some studies. Most loan applications raise the question of whether asbestos is present.

As a result, phase one environmental assessments have become routine in commercial real-estate transactions over the past 15 to 20 years, said John Dupwee of REESCO, an environmental-services company in Albuquerque.

A phase one assessment is based largely on a visual inspection of the property and research of public records pertaining to the property and its vicinity, he said. The assessment covers a host of potential environmental issues, not just asbestos.

“It’s a distillation of what is out there,” he said. “It’s a baseline report.”

Remediation or removal of asbestos-containing material is generally considered an extreme response to its presence, both Serna and Dupwee said. Short of a building renovation or demolition, the common response is to encapsulate or seal off the material, they said.

An asbestos checklist from Chicago-based IREM, or the Institute of Real Estate Management, says a building with encapsulated asbestos-containing material should have an operation and maintenance plan for the material developed by a qualified professional.

In addition, maintenance and janitorial employees who might encounter the material should receive two hours of awareness training. Everybody who regularly uses the building should be informed of its presence, the checklist says.

Surprisingly, building owners are not legally obligated to know when their buildings were built or whether asbestos is present, according to Jim Chynoweth of CBRE, a commercial real-estate services firm. If they do know and are asked, however, they’re obligated to tell the truth.

On the other hand, many owners recognize that the presence of asbestos is a stigma and, if it’s financially feasible, will have the asbestos removed, Laurence said.

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