How to Identify Asbestos: A Brief Guide

Asbestos // March 28, 2018

In its heyday, asbestos was used in thousands of products and materials across many industries like construction, shipbuilding and automotive. Though today the mineral is imported mainly just for the chlor-alkali industry, regulations in the United States still allow for up to 1% of asbestos to be used for certain products that have historic use. As such, products like certain kinds of insulation, roof tiles, corrugated sheets and vehicle parts may still contain small amounts of asbestos.

Unfortunately, it’s not easy to just look at a product or material and just know with a glance if it contains asbestos or not. Even if you know what asbestos looks like in its raw form, the fibers are generally pretty hidden in products that utilized the mineral, and actually rather dangerous if you can actually see exposed fibers. In these cases, the asbestos materials have been damaged and may have been released into the air, which can cause serious health risks. Fortunately, there are some ways you can check for asbestos hopefully before any of these products become damaged and help keep your family safe.

Knowing Where to Find Asbestos

The best place to start in protecting yourself and loved ones from potential asbestos exposure is knowing where asbestos can be found. Asbestos materials were very popular in the United States, especially from the 1930s to the 1970s. With this in mind, older buildings, schools and homes are likely to contain some kind of asbestos-containing material.

A general rule of thumb is to assume the presence of asbestos in homes built before 1980. If you’re not sure of the age of your home, it can be relatively easy information to access through public records or even talking to your realtor. If you had a home inspection prior to purchasing the property, it’s important to note that home inspections generally do not include looking for asbestos either, so it’s important for you to stay on top of any potential asbestos threat yourself. Knowing when your house was built can also help you be aware of any other potential toxins, like lead.

Though asbestos was utilized in thousands of products, there are a few more common building materials and areas of the home where asbestos can be found.

Common Asbestos-Containing Materials

  • Ceilings: popcorn ceilings, ceiling tiles
  • Flooring: vinyl tiles, some floor tiles, select adhesives, carpet underlay
  • Siding: shingles, stucco, transite
  • Insulation: wall, attic, materials around pipes, electrical wires, heating or a/c units
  • Adhesives: certain joint compounds, cement, caulk

It’s important to remember that even if your home or workplace has some of these products or other materials known to sometimes use the mineral, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are in danger of exposure. Asbestos is considered innocuous unless it is damaged or disturbed in some way, which could release the dangerous fibers into the air. It is important to be aware of its potential presence, however, to avoid any damage to such products in any storms, from old age, or in the case of renovations.

How to Check for Asbestos

In addition to knowing some general areas and materials in the home that are more likely to contain asbestos, some professionals have noted some basic visual inspections and considerations that may help identify asbestos products more easily.

Check surface patterns on materials like roofing or shingles. Asbestos materials are known to often have a dimpling effect or shallow craters that cover the surface. Though there are other materials that may have the same uneven surface, noting such patterns can help you note areas of the home that may be of concern for possible asbestos.

Consider the location in the home. Though asbestos-containing materials have the potential to be anywhere in the home, professionals have noted there are certain areas of the home with a higher risk. Bathrooms, basements and attics are areas of the home most commonly associated with an asbestos risk. Basements may have utilized the mineral around hot water pipes, furnaces, boilers, asbestos cement and duct work. Asbestos insulation is most common in attics, while bathrooms may find different asbestos caulks and adhesives, asbestos tiles or vinyl flooring.

Examine interior and exterior joints. On the outside of buildings and homes, asbestos sheets were often joined by aluminum runners. Asbestos sheets could be held together in a similar manner on the interior of homes, but with plastic or wooden runners. Asbestos could also be found in adhesives, like window putty and joint cement. It’s also important to be vigilant for any visible insulation material, especially if it appears damaged. Asbestos was most commonly used in all kinds of insulation, like asbestos insulating board.

Safely Removing Asbestos

If you believe you have asbestos in your home, it’s important not to panic. Again, there is no immediate danger if the suspected materials are in good condition. Homeowners should leave these materials alone and call in an asbestos professional to survey the area. The Environmental Protection Agency has strict regulations in place for how asbestos can be handled and disposed of, so it’s best to have certified individuals assess and properly take care of any asbestos-containing products.

An inspector will be able to perform a visual inspection of these areas of concern, as well as safely collect samples to analyze for asbestos fibers. If the asbestos testing reveals fibers, they will be able to recommend any next steps, which may involve leaving the materials alone if they are in good condition, or having the asbestos materials removed. Asbestos removal can entail completely disposing of the asbestos materials or encapsulating them so there is no longer a risk of friable asbestos. A consultant will be able to determine the best plan of action to keep you and your loved ones safe.

Being aware of what materials contain or potentially contain asbestos can help prevent deadly exposures and ensure your home is toxin free.