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A question I’m often asked with older homes is “is that asbestos?” which is usually followed up with “what do I need to do?”.  In this edition of Inspector’s Notes I’ll touch on Asbestos; what it is, where it lurks, and what can be done. Hopefully, this information will allow you to have a  more informed discussion with your clients.

Brief history

Asbestos is a cancer causing agent that has a long history dating back to the earliest records of time with archaeologists uncovering Egyptian mummies wrapped in asbestos cloth. It came into use in building materials in the 1858s here in the United States when it was used as a fireproofing material. By 1874 asbestos was being used widely in insulation products. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that asbestos was finally banned in the United States. That ban was short-lived and in the 1990’s asbestos was allowed to be used in small concentrations. Asbestos is still used today in things like brake pads, vinyl tile, roofing materials, and some cement pipe.

Where can I find it?

Asbestos can be found in several areas of your average home which is important to know in case any repairs or renovations are ever made.  Some of the areas include:

  • Floor tiles (older style vinyl squares or sheets)

  • Popcorn ceilings

  • HVAC duct work (white tape used to seal duct joints)

  • Exterior roofing (shingles)

  • Exterior siding (shingles)

  • Attic and wall insulation (insulation containing vermiculite)

  • Hot water and steam pipes (coated with asbestos material, asbestos blanket, or tape)

  • Furnace or boiler exhaust pipes (Transite)

When is it a problem?

Asbestos becomes a problem when it’s friable; free-floating. In the photo to the right you can see where grey duct tape was used to cover the asbestos tape, only to be pulled away exposing the asbestos tape which has become torn and jagged. These jagged edges present friable asbestos which can easily become airborne. At this point the asbestos should be handled by a qualified expert. 


White tape containing asbestos

It should be noted: Asbestos is safe and legal to remain in homes or public buildings as long as the asbestos materials are in good condition and the asbestos can not be released into the air.  The Environmental Protection Agency indicates on their website "In general, exposure may occur only when the asbestos-containing material is disturbed or damaged in some way to release particles and fibers into the air".

What does it look like?

As mentioned above, asbestos comes in many forms.  The list below includes some forms you may encounter in your home.

Floor tiles

Floor tiles installed installed before 1986 can be presumed to contain asbestos.  Vinyl flooring (sheets and tiles) in homes built between 1952 and 1962 can most certainly be presumed to contain asbestos.  The size of the tile is important; asbestos-containing floor tiles were manufactured in 6"x6", 9"x9", and 12"x12" sizes.  Any tile in this size, in the designated time frame and be presumed to contain asbestos. 

Transite pipe

Another common area is Transite pipe which was used as exhaust ducts for HVAC furnaces. Transite is a cement compound that contains asbestos. In the photo to the left the pipe comes up from the furnace in the basement and exits through the attic. As with the tape, it can be painted over (encapsulated) and only becomes a problem when it becomes damaged and friable. Once friable you’ll need an expert to remove it.

Popcorn ceilings

Popcorn ceilings, also known as acoustic, or textured ceilings are another place you may find asbestos. The use of asbestos in textured ceilings was banned in 1977. However, just because your house was built pre-1977 doesn’t mean the ceiling contains asbestos. The only way to be sure is to have it tested. This can be done by purchasing a kit at your local hardware store or hiring a professional to come in and do it for you. In either case, if you’re preparing to work on a popcorn ceiling it’s best to get it tested before you start work.

asbestos tiles

Floor tiles  <photo courtesy of>

Transite pipe

Transite pipe


Popcorn ceiling

When dealing with Asbestos it's vital to take the proper precautions.  If you are preparing to purchase a home or perform renovations on your current home, and your home was built between 1930 and 1980, then it's recommended that testing be performed.  Over the counter tests can be purchased or calling a local asbestos abatement company.  Either way, it's best practice to have the test performed if there's a suspicion asbestos is present.

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