Asbestos in Colorado: homeowners, renters, landlords still dealing with it

The architecture of buildings around Denver stands as a testament to years past. Styles of older homes can run the gamut from a classic bungalow to a Victorian to a Tudor, just to name a few. But sometimes those buildings were constructed with outdated materials like asbestos.

Today, asbestos can still be found within insulation and popcorn ceilings, hiding in walls only to be discovered during a home renovation or the replacement of a waterline. And when it’s found, it can be more than just a nuisance: It can pose a potential health hazard. Cleanup is a complicated process that can require the temporary displacement of homeowners and tenants – and can financially burden everyone involved.

On Wednesday, a crew of two for Asbestos Abatement Inc. took a hammer to a kitchen wall at Monaco Place Condominiums in Denver. Earlier in the morning, licensed asbestos worker Jacob Wilson, 22, and supervisor Brad Packwood, 43, donned their full-body hazmat suits and respirator masks before starting the second day of the two-day project.

For the unit’s owner to move forward with her kitchen remodel, she’ll shell out almost $4,000 for the asbestos removal.

Wilson and Packwood take safety precautions, including personal protective equipment, on-site showers and annual testing, like pulmonary function tests and chest X-rays, because they regularly work around the naturally-occurring mineral fiber that can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis, or lung scarring.

What Denver renters and homeowners may not know is that they can face those same risks if they make their own renovations to older residences, which were often constructed using asbestos – a cheap, heat-resistant insulator.

Last year, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Air Pollution Control Division received 384 major asbestos spill notifications across the state, with an additional 170 notifications so far in 2023, spokesperson Leah Schleifer said.

Starting in the 1970s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned a few uses of asbestos, including corrugated paper, flooring felt and any new uses of asbestos in products after August 1989. But “most uses of asbestos are not banned,” because of a court ruling in 1991, the agency reported.

“It’s not illegal here, which is unbelievable,” said Joel Egelman, president of Asbestos Abatement. “My guess is, probably, pretty much everyone in America at one point or another – because it’s so prevalent – has inhaled asbestos.”

Egelman said his own home has asbestos in its walls. “If it’s not disturbed, it’s completely benign.”

But fires, floods and home renovations can release microscopic shards of asbestos, which are harmful when inhaled.

His company, which removes it, typically takes on six to seven projects per week, with a team of 18. “There’s certainly no shortage” of business – 60% of which is residential, Egelman said.

As for the fate of the excised asbestos, it’s taken to a dump in Aurora to be buried. “And it sits there in perpetuity,” Egelman added.

City, state responses to asbestos

From the beginning of 2022 through March 2023, the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment responded to 49 asbestos-related complaints, with 37 specific to residential properties.

Apartment buildings constructed before 1980 would be suspected to have asbestos in the insulation of pipes, boilers and water heaters, as well as popcorn ceilings, said spokesperson Emily Williams.

She described Colorado as a state with one of the strictest asbestos regulations, “so not doing due diligence early can be costly.”

Building owners are required to remediate the situation when construction contractors violate these regulations.

Last year, two large commercial properties had asbestos problems – one caused by an apartment fire and the other discovered toward the end of a major building renovation, Williams said. Accidents and oversights both “happen occasionally in Denver.”

The Denver Department of Public Health & Environment investigates complaints within Denver, but the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment handles enforcement and demolition permit approvals.

In the case of apartment complexes, a property manager must hire an asbestos consulting firm once asbestos is disturbed beyond the state trigger levels, Schleifer at the Air Pollution Control Division said.

Asbestos building inspectors will conclude if the mineral fiber is present – and if it’s reached the level of a “major asbestos spill,” Schleifer said.

With major spills, a certified general abatement contractor must be hired, who will then restrict access to the area to protect public health and reduce contamination, she added.

From there, the timeline depends on the extent of the spill. “The division does not have authority to determine how quickly the mitigation should occur,” Schleifer said.

After cleanup, an inspection and air sampling occurs at the end of the process.

La Fonda Apartments

For weeks, some residents of La Fonda Apartments have found themselves forced from their units because of an asbestos spill.

It was triggered on March 20, but residents were evacuated on March 23, per emails shared with The Denver Post. “At this point- we do not know the time frame, but please plan on being out of the apartment through the weekend,” Kassie Blanchette, vice president of operations at property management company Rozeboom & Company, wrote in an email.

But as of Sunday – 27 days after the asbestos spill first occurred – some residents still remain displaced.

“While looking for a significant water leak source, drywall was cut in three apartments, causing the potential release/cross contamination of asbestos,” wrote senior property manager John Regier in another email.

Affecting the third, fourth and fifth floors, the asbestos spill impacted hallways, stairwells and apartments.

As days went by, all tenants were eventually burdened by it, with everyone required to evacuate the building from morning through evening on March 29 as cleaning occurred. The next day, 25 units were cleared to return home, according to an email.

Several tenants remain displaced, demonstrating how a cleanup can be complex for management and frustrating for tenants.

“My biggest concern is why the spill happened on Monday and we heard nothing about it until Thursday at 6 p.m.,” said resident Stephanie Rock.

Upon hearing news of the evacuation, Rock grabbed a few articles of clothing and a boombox – along with some Topo-Chico to drink. Since then, the La Fonda tenant has bounced from hotel rooms to friends’ homes, but has yet to return to the apartment.

“It’s been pretty terrible not being able to have any of my stuff or my home to go home to at the end of the day,” Rock said on Thursday.

The management company has provided residents with rent credits and paid for temporary housing at Wyndham properties.

Rock is unhappy with the compensation that’s been offered to those who’ve decided to stay with friends and family instead of a hotel. Emails sent by management indicate they’re taking an additional one week off of rent if tenants make that choice.

“Upon the advice of counsel, we cannot get into detailed discussions surrounding this situation at this time,” Blanchette wrote in an email. “However, as communicated to our residents, we are working on getting this matter resolved with the guidance of professionals and in accordance with the requirements of the law.”

Asbestos cleanup at La Fonda is still underway.

Legal perspective

The Apartment Association of Metro Denver’s Drew Hamrick said that, by 1978, the mineral was absent from “almost all” building materials.

“I suspect renters are less likely than homeowners to be living in a housing unit with asbestos building materials,” Hamrick said.

Mike Kelly, project manager at Denver-based American Heritage Restoration, provides roofing and other services to clients. In older residences, his company requests asbestos testing before they proceed with repairs.

That typically happens when he services apartment complexes and condominiums.

“Sometimes, we have to notify people that they’re going to have to move out of their unit for a certain amount of time” during asbestos abatement, Kelly said. “Generally, they’re not very excited about that.”

But without testing, “you’ve got a bigger issue on your hands,” he said.

The most immediate issues for renters facing an asbestos spill revolve around displacement, as residents are forced out of their homes by it, said David McDivitt, executive vice president and attorney at McDivitt Law Firm.

“The renter has a right to be reimbursed for the displacement,” McDivitt said.

The renters’ potential claims could also include the costs of finding suitable short-term housing and cleaning their possessions professionally – “things typically a renters’ policy, you think, would cover.” Another element could be “medical monitoring,” which is the cost of periodic evaluations to determine if a medical condition was caused by asbestos exposure, McDivitt said.

For homeowners, the issue of asbestos can arise when a house is bought, he added. Inspections occur as part of the purchase process, with asbestos testing available as an option – but usually at an additional cost.

“From a homeowner’s perspective, you kind of buy off that risk when you purchase a home and you fail to do an asbestos investigation.”

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