Updated May 19, 2021
Reading time: 7 minutes
Was your home built before 1980? There is a chance that your home has asbestos insulation or asbestos concealed in cement floors, tiles, walls, or pipes. Thankfully, our guide on what to do if your house has asbestos will help you navigate finding asbestos in your home and safely removing the unwanted toxin. Asbestos products can be a health hazard for residents. Health problems have been tied to the use of asbestos, and the risk of exposure may lead to long-term health effects.
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Home renovations are popular for many home buyers. It’s a dream to take a dilapidated home and upgrade it with all the modern finishes. However, there’s a risk associated with house flips and upgrades. Asbestos is a common issue among older homes, and as a homeowner, you could be exposing yourself and others to toxic asbestos fibers.
Asbestos is a natural mineral made of thin fibers. It has been used for fireproofing and insulating building materials since the 1800s and is still in use today.
Once a construction material composed of asbestos is broken down or damaged, the asbestos fibers become airborne. The asbestos fibers travel into our airways and can cause scarring and inflammation.
By inhaling asbestos dust from different materials, you are at risk for a specific asbestos-related disease called mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a type of lung cancer that forms tumors on vital organs in the body, such as the linings of the lungs, heart, or abdomen. Other extreme health risks, like lung disease, are linked to asbestos exposure. Unfortunately, in most cases, any asbestos-related illness can go undiagnosed for at least 15 years after reaching exposure.
Residential use of asbestos declined in the late 1970s as the United States banned several forms of asbestos, such as spray-on asbestos. Many homes in the U.S. built before the 1980s still have asbestos in a variety of building materials, including cement, shingles, and ceiling and floor tiles.
Though many products no longer contain asbestos, there are still products legally produced with asbestos material. One percent of asbestos material in products such as cement, tiles, and potting soil is still legal today.
Exposure to asbestos is more common than you may think. There are multiple scenarios in which you could potentially expose yourself and others to asbestos, including:
Drilling into drywall
Removal of vinyl floor tiles
Removal of popcorn ceilings
Cutting the insulation on pipes
You may not think of asbestos when making these changes to your home. For example, you might decide to hang up a favorite picture and unknowingly expose yourself to asbestos material. Before you hang up your favorite photos or choose to remove that outdated popcorn ceiling, you should first find out if there is asbestos in your home. And the sooner you find out, the less risk you have of potentially exposing yourself.
First, it’s essential to know that you should, at all costs, not touch materials in your home that you think might be asbestos. The item might be in excellent condition, but you should still leave it alone.
Asbestos is hard to detect. In most cases, you won’t be able to identify asbestos with the naked eye. Samples will need to go to a lab for tests. A repair may seem minor, but you should always hire a professional if there’s a risk of asbestos.
Since it’s not safe to collect samples on your own, you should hire an asbestos professional. This professional should have a certification by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). You’ll most commonly see these professionals called asbestos abatement contractors.
The best way to find an EPA certified asbestos abatement contractor is to search online for an “asbestos inspection.” You can likely find a list of accredited laboratories on the U.S. Department of Commerce website.
If you’re buying a home, always talk with your home inspector or real estate agent about asbestos. Simply ask them if there are any known asbestos risks to the house. You could save your health and money in the long run, especially if you plan to renovate after purchasing your new home.
You can find asbestos in high-temperature pipe insulation as well as wall and attic insulation. You don’t have anything to worry about if the insulation is in a batt or blanket form. But if you see loose-fill insulation, you may have a problem on your hands.
It’s worth noting; the problem lies with loose-fill insulation that has been poured loosely into wall stud cavities or joists. That’s because there may be thousands of loose particles inside your home’s walls or beneath floorboards of your attic.
You can identify loose-fill insulation by its loose and lumpy form. Loose-fill may also have a granular texture. You will never see paper or another backing like blanket or batt insulation usually has. If you find that you have loose-fill insulation, the next thing to do is figure out the type of material. The typical examples of materials include:
Vermiculite attic insulation is the top house material with asbestos, representing 70 percent of U.S. homes. You can tell vermiculite insulation by its pebble-like appearance and silver-gold or grayish-brown color. Sourced from a mine in Libby, Montana, that was active until 1990, it’s a naturally mined mineral that tends to expand when heated. That’s why you will see some stone-like particles with this type of insulation.
The mine itself closed in 1990. So the risk of having asbestos insulation is lower if your home was built or remodeled after that year. You should always treat it as if your home contains asbestos. Still, get tested to see if you have vermiculite insulation in your home, even if it was built or remodeled after 1990.
Loose-fill insulation with a gray color that is soft and does not have a shine is most likely cellulose insulation. How do you tell the difference between cellulose and asbestos insulation? It should have a “shredded gray paper” look to it.
Cellulose insulation is composed of mostly recycled paper and does not contain minerals. You’re safe if you have cellulose insulation in your attic as it is a common insulator in attics these days. Cellulose insulation also comes in blanket and batt forms.
A glass product, this type of loose-fill insulation is white and fluffy with a little shine in bright light. Fiberglass is easy to make out because it is super soft and looks like cotton candy. The fibers in fiberglass insulation are super fine and known to irritate the skin and potentially the respiratory system. Though this insulation is conventional in homes, it is not known to cause cancer or other significant health issues.
Mineral-based, mineral wool is loose-fill insulation with a fibrous yet soft and cotton-like texture. You can tell it’s mineral wool by its gray, white, brown-white, and off-white colors. Mineral wool is basaltic and dolomite, along with added binders. The binders melt at 2,750 degrees Fahrenheit then spin into fibers using air pressure. Like any insulation material, handle with care. There are no known asbestos materials nor health risks associated with mineral wool insulation.
Let’s say you identified asbestos or suspect asbestos in your home. Asbestos materials tend to release asbestos fibers when damaged, removed, or torn in any way. Damage might happen if the contents become removed improperly, repaired, torn, cut, sanded, drilled, scraped, or sawed. Because of the nature of asbestos fibers, here are some steps you need to take to identify and properly remove asbestos from your home.
Before move-in: Again, if you are going through the home-buying process, ask your inspector and talk to your realtor. Make sure the problem is taken care of before moving in.
Talk to your insurance: Some home insurers cover asbestos or asbestos removal. Coverage differs by the insurer, so be sure to talk to them first before contacting the professionals.
Hire professionals: If you are already in your home, contact an EPA-certified asbestos abatement specialist. Remember to only hire trained professionals to conduct asbestos inspections, testing, repairs, and removal of asbestos.
Keep an eye on it: Any asbestos-containing materials should be visually checked from time to time for any signs of potential damage or wear that might expose the asbestos fibers.
Don’t remove it yourself: Never try removing or damaging asbestos materials yourself. You could be putting yourself in danger of asbestos exposure. Never sweep dust or vacuum any debris that may contain asbestos, either. Also, asbestos materials should never be disposed of with regular household waste.
In other cases: If you’re planning to demolish your house, contact your state or local government to find the right professional and go through the process they recommend.
You must always hire a professional certified by the EPA in asbestos abatement. The EPA has standards called operations and maintenance (O&M). This program is designed to set work practices and apply them to staff in trades such as maintenance, custodial, and construction. The practices are covered under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and their asbestos regulations. The asbestos abatement professional will do one of three things per the EPA’s regulation:
Sealing or encapsulation: The professional will treat the material with sealant. The sealant will either bind the asbestos fibers or coat the material to ensure that the fibers do not get released. Sealing is often the repair method for pipes, furnaces, and boiler insulation.
Covering or enclosure: To prevent the release of fibers, the specialist will contain the asbestos by placing material over or around the area. In many cases, the material may include a protective wrap or jacket to insulate piping.
Removal: When you are remodeling or making significant changes to your home, removal is the option. These changes can disturb asbestos material. Additionally, if the material containing asbestos is damaged extensively, the trained professional will remove the asbestos properly.
Asbestos insulation was standard from the 1800s until 1990, though there is a law that allows up to one percent of asbestos in modern material products.
Asbestos is often found in ceiling and floor tiles, cement, roof shingles, textured paint, steam pipes, attics, and spray-on insulation. Asbestos cement, asbestos paper, and block insulation should all be avoided.
Asbestos illnesses are hard to detect. It can take as long as 15 years to diagnose an asbestos-related disease. If you’re concerned about possible asbestos exposure, talk to your primary physician. Your doctor might order imaging scans to detect signs of a potential asbestos-related disease.
If you are worried about your home having asbestos, call your insurer and ask them what kind of coverage you can get. While some may offer coverage for asbestos removal, others may not. Your insurer will be able to answer most questions related to asbestos.
Do you have the insurance policy to fit your needs? Don’t be left in the dark when serious matters with your home come up. Compare multiple insurers by using Insurify to compare quotes that fit your circumstances.
Stephanie Shaykin is a seasoned writer and marketing professional with experience in real estate. With a true passion for brand storytelling and SEO, she breaks down the most complex copy into a pleasant experience for the reader. In her spare time, she enjoys creating art and cooking in her home base of Chicago, Illinois.Learn More