Hold Your Breath

Last week, neighbor Christine called and asked for a little old-house advice. Her 1920s bungalow is covered with '40s- or '50s-era shingle siding that looks like wood but feels like concrete. This kind of shingle is a perfectly useful material, but it does make a house look as though it has an outbreak of psoriasis. Christine said she'd done some poking around, and she'd found perfectly good-and original-wood clapboard hiding under those shingles. The clapboard looked to be in pretty good shape, and she wanted to get it out where she and her neighbors could enjoy it.

"I just know that 50 years ago, some salesman came down my street promising a life without painting, and that's when my poor little house ended up with these awful shingles." She got that right. It is a fact: American men will buy cover-up fake-a-zoid siding faster than they'll buy hair weaves and pointy red sports cars. If you can catch an aging do-it-yourselfer just when his ladder nerves are starting to go, you can sell him anything. All you've got to do is say the magic words: No more painting. It doesn't matter that re-siding the house will cost more than a century's worth of hired-out, high-quality paint jobs. Money's not the issue-self-esteem is. Hiring a siding contractor to recover your house with a modern, high-tech material is a bold step in home improvement. But watching another man take over your house-painting duties, well, that's a worrisome thing.

Christine continued, "I think these shingles have asbestos in them. Are there any special tricks to getting them off and disposing of them?"

Well, asbestos is tricky in general. The one thing I know for sure is that it's not like Kryptonite-just being near it won't hurt you. But if the fibers get airborne, a person can inhale or ingest them, and that can be trouble. The conventional wisdom says the stuff is deadly dangerous, because the fibers will hang up in your airway or your gut and give you cancer. Some reports suggest that even a little exposure to asbestos can kill a person. The only good news is that it takes 20 or 30 years for the symptoms to show up.

But not too many years ago, asbestos was thought to be an all-natural, environmentally safe material, with thousands of uses. Take for instance, Kent cigarettes' Micronite filter, which was fully one-third asbestos. When Kent maker Lorillard introduced the filter in the early '50s, the company gave it the zippy moniker, "The Thinking Man's Filter." A few years later, when it was discovered that asbestos causes cancer, Lorillard commissioned a pair of electron microscope studies to prove that Kent smokers weren't sucking in asbestos along with their buttsmoke. The results: One-pack-a-day Kent smokers were inhaling over a billion clumps of asbestos fibers per year.

In those days, and even into the 1970s, asbestos was used in roof shingles, roofing felt, vinyl flooring, flooring underlayment, adhesives, duct tape, and even window putty. Asbestos was a critical component of automobile brakes. Up until a few years ago, if you stood near a busy intersection, you were standing in a cloud of asbestos fibers. If asbestos is as dangerous as some folks say it is, the world will end not with a bang, but with a wheeze.

Here's what I told Christine about her shingles: The safe, good-citizen thing to do is to call an asbestos remediation contractor or an environmental engineering company. They'll send over a crew dressed like the Intel Bunny People, who'll carefully remove the shingles and cart them away to a hazardous-waste landfill. This will cost about as much as a nice double-wide trailer home, delivered and tied down to the blocks.

Method two: Go to a supply house that sells safety equipment, and buy a respirator that's rated for asbestos fibers. (We're talking about a respirator here. Not a little paper dust mask.) Put on the respirator. Then, starting at the top course of shingles, use a flat prybar to pull the nails out of the shingles. Put a piece of wood between the prybar and the shingles, so the shingles won't crack and release the deadly asbestos fibers. Pile up the shingles near the alley and put up a sign that says, "Antique Shingles for Sale. Five Dollars Each." Sooner or later, somebody will come by and steal them. This method isn't recommended, of course.