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It’s Not the Black Plague, but Asbestos Must Be Handled Properly

Tom Soter in Building Operations on August 1, 2019

New York City

Asbestos Removal
Aug. 1, 2019

The years 1965 to 1975 may have been the era of classic rock, but to Jamey Ehrman, senior engineer at RAND Engineering & Architecture, those years were the heyday of asbestos. “The typical period of time needed to remove asbestos from a building is a week or two on average,” Ehrman says. “But one of my projects lasted six months. It was a late-1960s building. Those are the most notorious.” 

James Blum, an engineer at Joseph K. Blum, adds, “When people hear there’s asbestos in the building, they often treat it like it’s the black plague. It isn’t, but there are procedures to follow.” 

Because it is lightweight and fire-resistant, asbestos was a regular feature in New York construction, as long ago as the 1880s. Consequently, asbestos can be found in insulation, roofing, floor tiles, plaster, caulking, and windowsills. It was banned from new construction in 1990, after it was classified as a carcinogen.     

Asbestos-containing material (ACM) comes in two forms: friable and non-friable. Friable asbestos, which crumbles easily, is very lightweight and will linger in the air. It is easily broken apart or torn and therefore potentially dangerous when disturbed. Non-friable ACM, thicker and tougher, is not easily released into the air.

For a co-op or condo board preparing to tackle a capital project in a building that has not been certified asbestos-free, the process of dealing with asbestos begins with the scope of work, which is determined by an architect or engineer. Before you can begin a job, you need to obtain a work permit, but before you can do that, says Ehrman, “you have to have an environmental investigation by a city- and state-certified asbestos investigator. He will sample everything that is going to be disturbed.” He will take what is called a “bulk sampling” and send that material to a testing lab, which can take anywhere from 24 hours to a week to produce results. The cost: between $75 and $250 per test.

If the results are positive, a report must be filed with the city and state Departments of Environmental Protection. If the amount of asbestos is small, city and state regulations may allow you to avoid such filings, provided the abatement is still done by a licensed asbestos contractor. 

The next step is public notification. Notices should be placed in the building announcing that an abatement is scheduled. After the notices are posted, the law requires a waiting period before work can begin. “They want people to have an opportunity to read these notices,” Ehrman says. 

The board, usually using referrals provided by the engineer, must hire an Asbestos Project Designer, who will design the “quarantine” (work) area, including a decontamination, or “decon” chamber, where workers can remove their hazmat suits – all to ensure that no asbestos fibers leave that work area. The contaminated area is covered with plastic. 

The board must also hire an Asbestos Project Monitor, at a cost of $100 to $200 per hour, plus the cost of air-quality readings before, during, and after the work. “They want to be sure there are no fibers in the air,” says  Ehrman. The abated material is taken to an authorized disposal center. A report on the work is prepared by the project monitor, says Ehrman, “so that you can be covered in the case there’s a lawsuit and you need to prove that you were in compliance with all the asbestos regulations.”

While asbestos testing adds costs to a project – the rule of thumb is about 10 percent – Ehrman says the board has no choice. “That's the key point,” he says. “Where asbestos is concerned, don't panic. You should always factor in a potential asbestos abatement. And if you do that, you should follow these rules. Otherwise, what could be a more or less mild inconvenience can turn into a nightmare.”

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