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Brookline Asbestos Detective

Tom Silva and a hazmat expert put their heads together before work begins

Tom Silva may be best known for his skills as TOH’s general contractor, but he has a bit of the detective in him as well. During an early scene at the Brookline project—a 1957 mid-century-modern house in Brookline, MA—Tom and hazardous-material expert Ron Peik, of Alpine Environmental, discussed the possible presence of asbestos, which Tom had suspected from the start. “The age of the house is a teller because back then they did a lot of things with asbestos,” says Tom. “It sounds funny to say today, but back then asbestos was considered a great material—it was a good adhesive, it was a good insulator—so it was used in everything from joint compound to flooring adhesive to ceiling tile.”

Over the years, Tom has come to be wary of elements from this era, such as large linoleum floor tiles (“The 9x9 and 12x12 floor tiles often have asbestos, both in the linoleum itself and also in the adhesive,” he says) or in bedrooms or closets where less-expensive drywall with joint compound was replacing more expensive plaster for the walls. (“They used asbestos in the joint compound because it was sticky and a good insulator,” Tom says).

To test for asbestos, Ron Peik cored holes in key places and took the material to his lab for analysis. The result: Asbestos was found in nearly every spot Tom had suspected, including the linoleum sheet flooring in the basement and the joint compound on the bedroom closet walls. One surprise was that the bedroom ceiling tiles tested negative. “I would have guessed there would be asbestos there too,” says Tom.