Prep on an asbestos—abatement job starts with two layers of glued and taped plastic on the walls and ceiling. An air lock will eventually separate this room from the rest of the house.
The problem: A mineral valued for its fire resistance and tensile strength, asbestos can cause scarring of the lungs (asbestosis) or cancer when its shardlike fibers are inhaled. Banned from building materials in 1972, it can still turn up in the aforementioned floor tiles, as well as in insulation, plaster, mastic, ceiling tiles, caulk, and dozens of other products.
The best solution: As long as your renovation won't disturb it, the EPA recommends not tampering with asbestos that isn't "friable"—meaning it doesn't crumble when touched and isn't in material that is cracked, chipped, or flaking. In some jurisdictions, you're allowed to remove nonfriable asbestos yourself, provided you follow strict guidelines. (That's not the case at the TOH TV job site, where state law requires that the work be done by a pro.)
Friable asbestos, on the other hand, can never be removed by a homeowner. And it should be dealt with anyplace where it can be easily disturbed—say, around a furnace or ductwork—whether you're renovating or not.
The typical method is to isolate the area, using double layers of taped and glued plastic, and set up a machine to create a vacuum so that no contaminated air escapes the enclosure. Once abatement pros remove the material, they double-bag it and take it to a landfill licensed to handle asbestos. Cleanup involves HEPA-filtered vacuums, a total scrub-down, and disposal of the top layer of plastic sheeting, after which the space must be retested for asbestos before the job can be considered done.
A new option lets you encapsulate friable asbestos with a spray-on silastic elastomer (the same rubbery stuff that coats dishwasher racks), turning it into a stable, nonfriable version, which can then be left in place.
Newer, less toxic solvents are also being used to remove tile mastic or vinyl containing nonfriable asbestos. Cutting through the strong adhesives used to require petroleum-based and acetone solvents. But these products and their residues can send off noxious fumes, which are not filtered by the air machines. They can also damage underlying materials, like wood floors. Many companies, including Dec-Tam, which is handling the job at the project house, now use citrus-based mastic removers derived from oranges and lemons, which are biodegradable, free of chlorofluorocarbons, and nontoxic.