Regardless of the age of a home it is a good idea to wear a respirator when you have to do work in your crawl space. This is especially true of homes built prior to the 1950’s.
In houses built prior to then, duct-work was routinely sealed or insulated with asbestos containing papers/tapes. If the heating system was updated or removed, there is no guarantee that there won’t be asbestos in the dirt throughout the crawl space. All this particulate, as well as hundreds of other types of particulates, can be “kicked up” and become air-borne while wiggling through the crawl space. Some of the other particulates that can become airborne are: dust, dust mites, rodent feces, pesticides, mold/fungal spores, fiberglass etc.
Crawl spaces are great places to “store” all kinds of things that once “out of sight” also become “out of mind.” On a recent inspection I discovered one particular little “out-of-mind-experience” that could end up costing someone a lot of money (if a remediation company is called upon to pick up the pieces). Several sections of asbestos covered duct pipe had been discarded and left in the crawl space. In Washington State (and in some other parts of the country as well), homeowners can obtain permits to remove small amounts of these kinds of materials—complete with instructions for proper removal and personal protection (however the information comes with a strong “discouragement” message.) Further information can be found at the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.
These types of improperly discarded materials can be a hazard to anyone entering the crawl space (some of the trades will refuse to enter crawl spaces with visible signs of asbestos and other hazards), but the actual “visible” duct-work might be less dangerous than the dusty-dirt in a crawl space that doesn’t have any actual duct-work left in it. Having these spaces professionally cleaned by a licensed crawl space cleaning company and have them install a proper ground cover can go a long way toward protecting those of us who have to enter them.
This whole post is merely a long winded way of saying: Always wear respiratory protection in crawl spaces! You can just never know what is in the dust you are kicking up.
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