DEAR BARRY: Before I bought my home, I asked my inspector about the strange insulating material in the attic. He told me that … there might be a small amount of asbestos fibers in the insulation. He assured me that the insulation was perfectly safe and that any asbestos contamination would be at safe levels and hard to detect.

I found out later that he is either ignorant or was purposely misleading me. After searching the Web, I believe I have Zonolite insulation, recognized to be contaminated with asbestos in the majority of cases. Is my home inspector liable for downplaying the risks of Zonolite? By the way, he had me sign a contract making him not liable for asbestos in the home. –Paul

DEAR PAUL: Zonolite was a brand name for a type of insulation known as vermiculite. It is a lightweight mineral that is mined from the ground and is commonly mixed with potting soil to help retain moisture.

DEAR BARRY: Before I bought my home, I asked my inspector about the strange insulating material in the attic. He told me that … there might be a small amount of asbestos fibers in the insulation. He assured me that the insulation was perfectly safe and that any asbestos contamination would be at safe levels and hard to detect.

I found out later that he is either ignorant or was purposely misleading me. After searching the Web, I believe I have Zonolite insulation, recognized to be contaminated with asbestos in the majority of cases. Is my home inspector liable for downplaying the risks of Zonolite? By the way, he had me sign a contract making him not liable for asbestos in the home. –Paul

DEAR PAUL: Zonolite was a brand name for a type of insulation known as vermiculite. It is a lightweight mineral that is mined from the ground and is commonly mixed with potting soil to help retain moisture.

Most home inspectors may be unaware of vermiculite insulation because in many areas of the country, it was rarely used. In fact, in 23 years of inspecting homes, I have seen it only twice.

The first thing to remember about asbestos materials is that they release fibers into the air only when disturbed. Therefore, you are unlikely to be affected if the insulation in your attic is left as is. To determine whether your insulation definitely contains asbestos, you should send a small sample to an environmental laboratory for analysis.

According to the EPA, "asbestos veins in the ore body have contaminated most, if not all, of the material taken from the (Libby) mine" that was used to produce Zonolite, and, "Milling removed much of the asbestos from the finished product, but a significant amount remained. Because asbestos fibers are so small, this contamination is not evident with the naked eye."

The EPA also notes, "Not all vermiculite is contaminated. However, it is difficult to distinguish Libby vermiculite with the naked eye, and all vermiculite should be handled with care."

Asbestos disclosure is outside the scope of a home inspection, as stated in the home inspection contract that you signed. However, when a home inspector makes disclosures involving asbestos, as your inspector apparently did, the asbestos disclaimer is no longer credible.

A home inspector cannot reasonably disclaim asbestos on one hand and then make definite disclosures and assurances about asbestos on the other.

When your inspector stated that the insulation was perfectly safe and that any asbestos contamination would be at safe levels and hard to detect, he immersed himself in liability, especially if he made those statements in writing.

DEAR BARRY: Our smoke alarm goes off at random times, sometimes in the middle of the night. We replaced the battery, but that did not help. What could be causing this, and what can we do to stop it? –Brenda

DEAR BRENDA: All that is needed for a false alarm is a small particle of debris in the detection chamber of the smoke alarm. Often, a small spider will get into that part of the fixture, causing the alarm to activate. The solution is to buy a replacement alarm at the hardware store. And while you’re at it, buy an alarm that also detects carbon monoxide.

To write to Barry Stone, please visit him on the Web at www.housedetective.com.

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