How to Identify Asbestos in Your Home

Life-threatening asbestos particles may be in your home if it was built before 1980. When inhaled, asbestos fibers cling to tissues around the lungs, heart, and abdomen causing inflammation and scarring that can lead to mesothelioma, a rare and deadly type of cancer. Despite the well-known hazards of asbestos exposure, it’s still found in a number of products, including car parts, insulation, and construction materials.

Spotting Asbestos

While asbestos is difficult to find with the naked eye, it does have some traits which make it identifiable, such as dimpling. Textured coatings can also indicate asbestos’ presence. For example, Artex is a textured coating that was a commonly used to create decorative finishes on ceilings and walls.

Certain locations are more prone to having asbestos products than others. For instance, bathrooms may have asbestos in the wallboards or floor tiles, while basements and attics built between 1930 and 1970 that have loose fill or attic insulation materials may contain asbestos.

Check your hot water pipes as well, as asbestos was commonly used in pipe insulation. You should also look for asbestos sheets inside and outside of your home. Interior asbestos sheets were joined by plastic or wooden runners, while exterior asbestos sheets were held together with aluminum runners. The presence of such runners indicates asbestos’ presence, as modern builders nail or staple foam into place for roofs and walls.

Where Can I Find Asbestos?

Since the health risks of asbestos were not verified until the 1960s, and restrictions were not put in place until the 1970s, very few materials have a warning stating the mineral’s presence. Additionally, asbestos is often mixed with other materials, such as cement, making it harder to identify.

Building materials in the United States from the 1930s to 1970s often contained asbestos, meaning older commercial buildings, schools, and homes may contain it in some form. Asbestos insulation was common in the building industry because it's flame and heat resistant and chemically stable. It comes in many forms, including loose fill insulation, paper sheets, cements, plasters, and pre-molded forms. Some insulation was also applied in sprayed coatings, which could also contain asbestos.

One type of insulation to be wary of is vermiculite insulation. While vermiculite isn't always dangerous, one company who produced it in the 1900s, W.R. Grace, mined it at the Libby Mines in Montana and the product was contaminated with tremolite, a form of asbestos. They sold the products under the name Zonolite.

In addition to insulation, asbestos was used for a variety of other building materials and products, including:

  • Adhesives and cements
  • Car parts, such as brakes and clutches
  • Popcorn ceilings, ceiling tiles, and floor tiles
  • Sheetrock and wallboard
  • Insulation – pipe, wall, attic, loose fill, electrical wires, and heating or A/C units
  • Siding, roof tiles, vinyl tiles, and vinyl flooring
  • Window putty
  • Cement sheets
  • Fire doors
  • Asbestos insulating boards

Handling Asbestos in Your Home

While a number of materials contain asbestos, your risk for exposure is low unless the material has been damaged in a way which releases the particles into the air. Friable asbestos, often found in products like sprayed-on insulation, pipe insulation, and loose fill insulation, is dangerous because it crumbles easily, releasing fibers into the air which can be inhaled. Non-friable asbestos, common in cements and tiles, is bound to another material, making it harder for the fibers to become airborne unless they’re actively damaged.

A visual inspection usually isn’t enough to locate asbestos. If you fear asbestos is present in your home, it’s best to call in an asbestos professional who can test areas of concern, especially before undergoing any construction or renovation projects. An asbestos inspector can go through your home and take samples of suspicious materials for testing and asbestos analysis at a certified laboratory. If removal or repair is necessary, an asbestos contractor can be called in to handle the project. It's important to use a licensed asbestos abatement professional when having this work done to ensure all guidelines and safety precautions are followed.

Because asbestos isn’t a health hazard unless the material has been damaged and fibers are in the air, an asbestos professional may decide asbestos in good condition can remain untouched. If it’s recommended that the asbestos remain in your home, they may suggest encapsulating (sealing) the material to avoid the risk of friable asbestos.

If you believe you’ve found an asbestos-containing product, the best thing you can do is leave it alone and call a certified asbestos professional. Never attempt to remove or repair asbestos materials on your own, as you could damage the product and release dangerous fibers. Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has strict guidelines on how to properly dispose of asbestos products.

While asbestos isn’t easily detected, the best way to avoid exposure is to be aware of any material that contains asbestos fibers and take the appropriate precautions when dealing with it.