Asbestos continues to be a concern because of its widespread use during the 1900s for both residential and commercial construction. While the dangers of asbestos have been widely known for centuries, the asbestos industry conspired to hide its hazards from the government and consumers for decades. Because of this – and because of the building booms of the early and mid 20th centuries – asbestos made its way into millions of homes. In 2011, The Guardian, a UK newspaper, estimated that more than 50% of homes in the UK harbored asbestos-containing materials. In the U.S., any home built before 1974 is likely to have been built or renovated using materials that contain asbestos. Here’s what you need to know about how and where to find asbestos in your home, and what you should do about it if you find it.
When Was Your Home Built?
Asbestos is most commonly present in homes built before 1974, when asbestos-containing materials were banned for construction uses. In the interests of caution, some experts suggest checking for asbestos in any home built before 1979. It’s important to remember that just the presence of asbestos in your home isn’t a cause for panic. It only becomes dangerous when the material is damaged, releasing asbestos fibers into the air where they can be inhaled. That’s why renovations and repairs in homes built before 1980 can be hazardous to your family’s health. In most cases, experts recommend leaving the materials in place and covering them to prevent accidentally disturbing them.
Where to Look for Asbestos in Your Home
Asbestos was used in many different products for home construction and repair, including floor and ceiling tiles, roof shingles, siding, pipe cement, joint compound, sheetrock and all types of insulation, including insulation around ducts, fireplaces, boilers and sheeting. It was used in attic insulation and wall insulation, as well as in some types of paint. Generally, if you’re planning to do any major renovation in an older home, you should expect that you might encounter asbestos.
If you’re starting to think that finding asbestos in your older home may be difficult, you’re right. You can’t tell that something contains asbestos just by looking at it. In most cases, the presence of asbestos can only be definitely determined by microscopic examination and expert testing. However, these are some of the most common places where you might find asbestos in an older home and what you can do about them.
- Floor tiles installed before 1980, particularly those that measure 9″x9″, 12″x12″, or 18″x18″. In most cases, it’s better to leave these tiles in place rather than remove them. You can reduce the risk by encasing or covering the floor – pouring cement over it, for example. If you must remove the tiles, most states have regulations about how the work must be carried out. It’s often safest to hire an expert to do the job.
- Vinyl flooring containing asbestos was also commonly used until the 1980s, and flooring adhesive used to lay flooring also frequently contained asbestos. As with the floor tiles, most experts agree that it’s safer to encase the floor than it is to try to remove it.
- Popcorn ceilings were very popular in homes in the 1960s and 1970s. The textured paint treatment often contained asbestos, a well-known fire retardant. If you want to remove a popcorn ceiling, it’s best to test the paint for asbestos. If asbestos is found, consider having the work done by an experienced asbestos removal contractor.
- Acoustic ceiling tiles and drop ceilings installed before 1980 are likely to contain asbestos. These ceilings are prone to damage which might release asbestos into the air. If you’re planning to remove drop ceilings in an older home, check with your state’s environmental agency for any regulations concerning removal. Many state agencies maintain lists of experts you can consult to determine whether the tiles contain asbestos.
- Drywall and paneling in homes built between 1930 and 1980 may contain asbestos. Plain drywall most often used in single family homes most often did not, but the heavier sheetrock panels used between units in multi-family dwellings often did. In single-family homes, decorative paneling, such as faux-brick panels, often contained asbestos.
- Mud and joint compound used to cover seams between panels, however, almost always contained asbestos. Even if the drywall panels are asbestos-free, removing or destroying old walls and paneling carries the risk of releasing asbestos into the air. As with floors and ceilings, it’s recommended that you treat the materials as if they do contain asbestos unless you determine that they definitively don’t.
- Foam insulation around plumbing, pipes and boilers often contains asbestos. More often than not, experts recommend encasing the asbestos to prevent it being disturbed.
- Sheet insulation and insulating tape around pipes often contained asbestos.
- Vermiculite attic insulation, particularly loose vermiculite insulation, was commonly used in the 1950s and 1960s.
If your home was built before 1989, the year that the EPA finally banned all forms of insulation with asbestos, you should always suspect that older insulation contains asbestos. Your state environmental agency maintains a list of labs and experts qualified to determine whether or not asbestos is present in the materials, and who can recommend the best way to deal with them.
Asbestos is commonly found in siding, tiles and roofs of homes built or renovated between 1900 and 1980. Because any work done on the exterior of a home will potentially release asbestos fibers into the neighborhood, many states strictly regulate who can do the work and how it must be done. There are experts who can evaluate roofing tiles, house siding and other materials on older houses to determine if they contain asbestos.