Where to Find the Hidden Asbestos in Your Old Home
From the 1920s to 1979, asbestos was something of a “miracle” material which was inexpensive and highly effective as a fire retardant. These properties made it quite desirable to use in home construction projects and asbestos was put to use in insulating pipes and ductwork, as a component in vinyl flooring, and wall and attic insulation.
Asbestos components weren’t just limited to homes of this period. Many older homes built prior to 1940 also contain asbestos as homeowners retrofitted their homes with insulation and central heating systems. Because asbestos was so commonly used in home construction and remodeling projects, finding asbestos during an “old house” home improvement project is a strong possibility. Before tackling a do-it-yourself old house remodel, you should familiarize yourself with some of the more typical places that asbestos can be hidden in your home.
Heat duct insulation: In many older homes, asbestos paper was used to wrap heat ducts throughout the home. There are two types of asbestos materials that were used to wrap HVAC ducts: one looks like thick white paper while the other has the look of a plaster of paris cast that “gives” when touched.
Boilers, water heaters and hot water pipes: This same type of insulation was also used to wrap hot water pipes and water heaters.
Cement asbestos roof shingles: During the 1920s to 1960s, a combination of asbestos fibers and Portland cement were used to manufacture a durable and fire resistant roof. If you suspect that the roof of your home dates back to the 1950s or 1960s, keep in mind that some of these older roofs can contain asbestos.
Acoustical ceiling tile: Some acoustical tiles contain asbestos fibers. While it’s impossible to know if a ceiling contains asbestos without laboratory analysis, the do-it-yourselfer should keep the possibility in mind when beginning a remodel.
Floor tiles: Asphalt and vinyl floor tiles from as early as the 1920s were also known to contain asbestos fibers. When we removed four layers of flooring from our circa 1880s kitchen, we discovered that one of the layers had contained asbestos, along with the glue used in two of the layers. Again, this is another situation where it’s hard to tell whether or not a floor contains asbestos without a laboratory analysis. For safety’s sake, the best practice is to err on the side of caution.
If you are not sure what asbestos looks like, do check out this link from InspectAPedia. This site is a terrific resource for all old house homeowners and is filled with dozens of photographs which can help you determine if your home may contain asbestos products.
So what happens if my house does contain asbestos?
Of course, just because your home may contain asbestos doesn’t mean it’s hazardous to your health. Asbestos in good condition doesn’t release those tiny fibers that are so dangerous to inhale, and in some cases is best left alone. The danger is when the asbestos becomes damaged through tearing or decay, or asbestos particles are released in the air during sanding.
If you think you have uncovered asbestos during your home improvement project, it’s best to contact an independent hygiene or asbestos inspector first before making arrangements with an abatement team. These independent inspectors have the experience to know where to search for asbestos products and will take numerous test samples through out your home. Once they have collected samples, the inspector will run a lab analysis on the materials and will provide a written report noting the location of asbestos in the home.
After receiving the report, a homeowner can contact an asbestos abatement team for removal of the asbestos found in the home. Your local division of the Environmental Protection Agency can provide you with the names of reputable inspectors and asbestos abatement teams in your community. They may even be able to provide you with guidelines for removing the asbestos yourself.
Finding asbestos during a do-it-yourself remodel can be frightening. However, by educating yourself before beginning an old house restoration project, you’ll be better prepared to handle those unwelcome surprises when they appear.