We love the charm, character, and quirks of old houses. How many new homes have true hardwood floors, built-in cabinets, and stained glass windows?
Of course, squeaky floorboards, dusty attics, and strange room shapes are additional parts of owning an older home. But what do you do if your house contains hidden dangers behind the charming features?
Unfortunately, if you’re buying an older house, asbestos is sometimes part of the deal. This toxic mineral was once prevalent in attic insulation and other building materials, and may still be lurking in your home. Asbestos can be dangerous for you and your family, which is why it is so important to check for asbestos contamination as soon as possible.
But what does asbestos look like and how do you know if you have it? We’ve assembled this guide to help you understand the dangers of asbestos, identify it in your home, and take appropriate steps for safe, professional removal.
What Is Asbestos?
“Asbestos” refers to a group of six different minerals that are made of very thin fibers.1 Each of these minerals is:
- Heat resistant
- Chemical resistant
These characteristics once made asbestos fiber an appealing additive to many construction products.
Like other minerals, asbestos fiber is mined from the earth. It’s found throughout the United States and in many other countries. While the peak of asbestos mining in the U.S. occurred during the 1960s and 70s, the use of asbestos dates to a much earlier time.
A Brief History of Asbestos
Asbestos was first incorporated into pots and cooking utensils over 4,500 years ago by Scandinavian cultures.2 2,000 years later, the Ancient Romans noticed that slaves working with asbestos became ill, although this knowledge didn’t stop its use. The Industrial Revolution spurred the commercial manufacture of asbestos products in the late 1800s. This ubiquity led to the discovery of a link between cancer and asbestos exposure in the 1930s.
Unfortunately, asbestos had become far too popular and valuable, so the industry ignored the warnings from scientists and medical professionals until Congress finally began federal regulations on asbestos in the 1970s.
In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) attempted to ban the use of asbestos in new products and recommended phasing it out in others. The ban was overturned two years later after heavy pressure from lobbyists for the asbestos industry.
Despite the known dangers, asbestos is still included in many products today.
The Dangers of Asbestos Exposure
Long-term exposure to asbestos fibers can cause serious health problems.
The lungs are most seriously impacted by inhaling needle-like asbestos fibers. The three lung diseases closely associated with asbestos are:3
- Asbestosis – This chronic condition aggravates lung tissues and creates scarring. It can contribute to cardiac failure and is often fatal.
- Mesothelioma – Mesothelioma is a cancer of the membrane that lines the lungs, abdomen, chest, and heart. Almost every case diagnosed in the U.S. is linked to asbestos exposure.
- Lung Cancer – Other lung cancers are the leading cause of death among those who have been regularly exposed to asbestos. Smoking cigarettes combined with asbestos exposure makes one even more likely to develop lung cancer.
Signs You May Have Asbestos in Your Home
First things first: the only sure way to know if materials in your home contain asbestos is to get them tested in a laboratory.
However, there are some clues that your home might have asbestos. Do any of the following apply to your house?
- Built before 1980
- Features popcorn ceilings and textured paint
- The exterior is built of cement shingles and siding
- Attic insulation is loose fill (i.e., not made of a uniform material like foam blocks)
If so, there’s a greater likelihood of asbestos—and you’re most likely to find this dangerous substance in your attic.
Insulation is the most commonly known asbestos-containing product still present in many homes. Two types of insulation—vermiculite and batt—can contain asbestos, although it’s most often found in the loose-fill style of insulation, vermiculite.4
Identifying Asbestos in Your Attic
Although many attics are empty, ignored spaces, some homeowners want to put that square footage to good use. We don’t blame you. A well-insulated attic is a perfect place to store your seasonal decor, clothing, and keepsakes.
So how do you know if it’s safe to put your attic to work for you?
First, we want to be clear that you shouldn’t disturb anything in your attic that you think might contain asbestos. If your attic is finished, look out for ceiling tiles, popcorn ceilings, or other textured paints. These would need to be laboratory tested to confirm the presence of asbestos.
Unfinished attics might have more visible evidence of asbestos.
- If the insulation is made from vermiculite, there’s an excellent chance it contains asbestos.
- You can identify vermiculite by its appearance. It’s made from small, pebble-like bits. They’re usually about a quarter of the size of a paperclip and are brown, silver, or gold.
Interestingly, vermiculite itself is not harmful.5 However, most of the vermiculite used in the U.S. was mined from the same place—a mine contaminated with asbestos.
How to Get Rid of Asbestos in Attics
The idea of asbestos covering your home is disturbing. We want to reassure you that most asbestos-containing materials are only harmful if they’re disturbed or damaged.
If you suspect your home may have asbestos, the best approach is often to leave it alone.
To help you understand, imagine the dandelions that pepper your yard in the spring. Once they turn white, you can blow on them and they release tiny bits of fluff into the air. Think about disturbing asbestos in a similar manner. When left alone, you’re not likely to experience harmful effects. However, when asbestos is disturbed, it releases deadly fibers into the air where you can inhale them.6
“Friable” is the term used to describe asbestos that can be crumbled and released into the air. Asbestos is at its most dangerous in this format.
Removal and Replacement
If your attic has vermiculite insulation and you want to remove it, keep in mind that the EPA recommends leaving it alone unless absolutely necessary.7 If removing the loose fill insulation is your only option, don’t do it yourself under any circumstances.
If you have no choice but to remove existing asbestos insulation, here are the steps to ensure your safety:
- Test the material – Contact a certified professional to make sure you are not dealing with asbestos containing material. If you need help finding one, call your local EPA office. They can point you in the direction of professionals who have completed an asbestos safety course. A professional can take a sample of any material you suspect of containing asbestos and send it to a lab to test for confirmation.
- Remove insulation safely – Once your suspicions have been confirmed and you’ve decided to proceed with asbestos removal, a professional will employ what’s known as a negative pressure enclosure. This prevents any loose fibers from escaping and contaminating the rest of your house.
- Monitor the air – The contractor who removes the insulation should continue to monitor the air in your home after removal to ensure your safety.
- Replace it with new insulation – Today’s insulation isn’t made with asbestos. Consult with a professional to identify the right insulation material for your geographic area, home, and budget.
Other Hiding Spots for Asbestos
While you’re most likely to find asbestos in attic spaces, there’s a chance that other construction materials contain this toxic mineral. If you suspect asbestos in your attic, do your due diligence in inspecting the following areas before you undertake any home renovation projects.
- Exterior Surfaces – Asbestos can be found in cement roofing and siding shingles on the exterior of your home.8 As long as these are left alone, they’re not likely to pose any risk to you.
- Floor and Ceiling Tiles – Asbestos was once used in the adhesive backing on vinyl flooring sheets and stick-on-tiles. Ceiling tiles can also contain asbestos fibers. Pulling up floor tiles can be problematic because you’ll likely scrape the adhesive and release fibers into the air when you remove them.9
- Textured Paint – Popcorn ceilings aren’t pleasant to look at and they can contain asbestos. The removal of a popcorn ceiling or any textured wall paint containing asbestos must be done by a professional to prevent hazardous exposure.10 In many cases, it’s better to cover the ceiling or textured paint instead of removing it.
- Pipes – Asbestos is commonly found coating hot water pipes in old homes. Old pipes might also be covered with tape that contains asbestos.
Attic Construction is Your Insulation Solution
Old homes come with concerns that, when ignored, can lead to serious health problems for you and your family. Yes, asbestos in an attic is dangerous and needs to be handled with caution. The attic is a prime space for asbestos to lurk. If you suspect your attic contains asbestos insulation and your living situation requires removal, don’t try to tackle it on your own. You need a certified expert for safe removal.
At Attic Construction, we can help.
We’re experts in insulation installation, and we’ll make sure your home is up to today’s safety standards. Our high standards ensure your satisfaction with our work. Contact us today to request an appointment.
- Mesothelioma.com. What is Asbestos? https://www.mesothelioma.com/asbestos-exposure/what-is-asbestos/
- Mesotheliomahelp.org. Asbestos Timeline. https://www.mesotheliomahelp.org/asbestos/history/
- Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. Asbestos – Health Effects. https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/chemicals/asbestos/effects.html
- EPA. Protect Your Family from Asbestos-Contaminated Vermiculite Insulation. https://www.epa.gov/asbestos/protect-your-family-asbestos-contaminated-vermiculite-insulation
- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Vermiculite Consumer Products. https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/NEWS/vermiculite051603.pdf
- Oregon State University. When is Asbestos Dangerous? https://ehs.oregonstate.edu/asb-when
- EPA. My Attic Has Vermiculite in It. Am I At Risk? Should I Take it Out? https://www.epa.gov/asbestos/my-attic-has-vermiculite-insulation-it-am-i-risk-should-i-take-it-out
- Consumer Product Safety Commission. Asbestos in the Home. https://www.cpsc.gov/safety-education/safety-guides/home/asbestos-home
- Asbestos.com. Where Asbestos Can Be Found in the Home. https://www.asbestos.com/exposure/home/
- Mesothelioma.com. Asbestos in Popcorn Ceilings. https://www.mesothelioma.com/asbestos-exposure/products/asbestos-popcorn-ceilings/