Discovering That Their Home Is Walled with Asbestos, a Florida Family Flees the Dangerous Dust

updated 11/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

The house stands frozen in time, a ghostly domestic tableau. A basket of laundry awaits hanging. Toys lie scattered in the breakfast nook. A box of diapers sits next to the playpen. The Selph family of Jasper, Fla., isn't home, and may never be again.

Last Aug. 19, Marvin Selph, 42, his wife, Carol, 40, and their three children abandoned the house, leaving behind almost everything they owned. That afternoon they had confirmed what Carol had feared: Workmen cutting openings for ductwork were releasing asbestos dust, deadly fibers known to cause cancer when inhaled. The interior walls of the house they had owned for 14 years had been constructed mostly of asbestos sheeting, and now fine gray particles were settling on their clothing and personal treasures.

When the house was built, around the end of World War II, contractor Elza Smith couldn't find any regular wall-board, so he used Transite, a Johns-Manville product made largely of crysotile asbestos. But the Selphs didn't know that, and might never have known if work hadn't begun on their new heating and air-conditioning system on Aug. 11.

Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, contractor Smith, 76, who still works part-time as a city building inspector, considers the family's departure unnecessary. He scoffs at suggestions that such wallboard is a health hazard and dismisses as "racketeers" contractors who do asbestos removal. Equally sanguine is Lamar Hill, who has lived nearby, for 25 years, in a house that Smith built from similar materials. In fact, says state asbestos coordinator Edward Palagyi, the Selphs were probably quite safe until workmen cut into their wallboard, powdering the interior of their house with the fibers.

The Selphs now live in a rented house and wear donated clothing, not sure what steps to take next. They cannot afford the $17,000 a contractor wants to remove the wallboard, but even more worrisome are the uncertainties of exposure to asbestos. Carol admits that she is terrified, for decades may pass before the effects are known. More disturbing than the loss of a home is the prospect of a future tainted with doubt.

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