Asbestos is one dangerous substance. It’s one of the big legacy toxins that remains in older buildings across the country. The key to safely dealing with asbestos lies in awareness especially when it comes to locating and identifying it.
Before the 1970s when it was officially classified as a carcinogen, asbestos was used in many things through it’s long history: floor tiles, fire blankets, shingles, siding, pipe insulation, mastics, and car parts, just to name a few. This hazardous fiber is incredibly toxic and can even cause lung cancer. That’s why it’s crucial to locate the asbestos in your home and to follow proper procedures for removing asbestos and disposing of it, too.
8 Keys to Identifying and Removing Asbestos
1. Identifying Asbestos
The most common places to look for asbestos would be in the attic and basement of homes, especially if they were built before 1970. However, sometimes just a visual inspection is not enough. Many homeowners don’t realize that there’s asbestos in their home until they want to replace things like the floor tiles, shingles, insulation, etc.
If you think that a specific area in your historic home may have asbestos, be sure to check it now and then to be sure that there’s no water damage, tears, or abrasions that could allow the fibers to be disturbed. If there is, don’t go near the area or allow anyone to touch or disturb it. Some of the everyday things that can contain asbestos include:
- Vinyl floor tiles
- Flooring glues
- Loose-fill insulation
- Popcorn ceilings
- Window glazing or caulking
- Roofing shingles
- HVAC ducts
- Fiber Cement Siding
2. Get the Material Tested
The only way to safely identify the presence of asbestos is to get the material sent to an EPA-certified lab for testing. Look for an industrial hygiene firm, which will come to your home and collect samples for lab analysis. If it is present in your home, they will give you detailed test results that will let you know for sure if the substance is asbestos.
For years I have used a company called Western Analytical Labs. They have a simple process where you send them a 1″ sized sample of any materials and for $30 they will tell you if it contains asbestos, which kind of asbestos, and if they material requires professional abatement.
I’ll simply place the sample in a zip lock bag and mail it off to them and in about 1-2 weeks I have a detailed report in my hands. If it is positive for Abestos Containing Material (ACM) then it’s time to look at the next section. Identifying asbestos will help you develop a plan of attack.
3. Hire an Asbestos Abatement Contractor
Asbestos removal is something that should be left to the professionals if it all possible. However, many homeowners don’t have the budget for hiring a contractor or prefer the DIY approach. Legally, a homeowner can remove asbestos from their home.
Be sure to check the local and state regulations before you start. If you choose to hire a contractor, ask them for a detailed written plan that states exactly how they’re going to remove the asbestos and how they will follow state regulations concerning removal and disposal.
Asbestos abatement contractors are required to have a specific licensing in most states. The typical GC or handyman is not permitted to do this kind of work even if they say they can. Check their licensing first because your safety is at risk.
4. DIY Asbestos Removal
I’m not going to recommend you do this flat out. The level of protection you need to take to ensure your safety is too much for almost any homeowner so don’t try to remove asbestos by yourself. It’s best to leave this to a pro and DIY other aspects of your old house, but I will give you some tips for how the work should be done so you can make sure that your pro is taking the proper precautions.
5. Wear Protective Equipment
If there’s no way to avoid handling asbestos, it’s imperative to wear the right personal protective equipment. This should include goggles, gloves, respiratory protection, and a full-body Tyvek suit or the equivalent. Choose a mask with a fitted rubber respirator and a HEPA N100 rated cartridge. Keep in mind that the mask won’t be effective or seal properly if you have any facial hair.
6. Wet Down Surfaces
When attempting asbestos removal, wet down any surfaces that you suspect contain asbestos and keep them wet the entire time. Working wet helps cut down dust and the danger of asbestos is when the fibers are inhaled. However, this doesn’t mean that fibers won’t be released. If the material is crushed or damaged, the fibers will still release even if it’s wet. Then, after you’re done handling the asbestos, wash your hands thoroughly before you remove the mask.
7. Get Rid of Clothing
Always be sure the location of the asbestos doesn’t have air access to the rest of the house (if possible) to avoid cross-contamination. Seal off any vents or ducts in the area where the abatement work is being done. To be safe, it’s a good idea to wear junky clothing while you’re doing asbestos removal. When you’re done, throw the clothing and shoes away in a garbage bag and tie it up tightly before you bring it to the landfill. Asbestos fibers are excellent clingers and stick to any type of carpet, fiber, clothing, shoes, just about any surface.
8. Dispose of Asbestos Properly
The disposal process is one of the most critical aspects of asbestos removal. It’s critically important to keep every piece of asbestos wet, double bagged, tied, sealed, and then labeled very clearly. Check your region to find out which landfills accept asbestos for disposal. You can use the local or solid waste authority or even a web search to find this information. Dispose of the asbestos as quickly as possible.
As a homeowner, you can legally perform asbestos removal (but I don’t recommend it!), or there’s always the option to hire a professional contractor—but be sure they’re licensed and certified. Be sure to test any areas that you suspect contain asbestos with an EPA-certified lab.
One Last Thing
The biggest thing to think about is identifying asbestos. If you are unsure have a material tested. Before a remodel have lots of materials that will be affected tested. Hiding your head in the sand is not safe when it comes to asbestos.
I have done extensive testing on my houses and sometimes things I think are certainly asbestos are not and other times it shows up in unexpected places. Testing give you the peace of mind you need to safely do any remodel or project and know what you are up against. It basically comes down to “don’t assume” with asbestos. Know.
Founder & Editor-in-Chief
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.
4 thoughts on “8 Keys to Identifying and Removing Asbestos”
We have to remove asbestos popcorn ceiling in old/built in 1970 house also will have to change attic insulation and change air vents. Not sure what project is best to do first – popcorn ceiling removal or insulation/air vents change.
Thank you for your question. We recommend tackling the attic insulation and air vents first.
The Craftsman Blog Team
Enjoy your emails and tips, especially this article. We had an abatement company remove the asbestos fiber cement tile siding from our 1928 home last fall and it revealed almost perfectly preserved clapboard siding underneath! Only had to replace a few that were termite eating. Seemed like a scary thing to deal with asbestos but I can’t stress enough about hiring a reputable company to do the abatement. Probably the best decision we’ve made on our home so far, both getting it removed and hiring someone to do it! Thanks for all your tips, super helpful to us old home owners!
Apparently asbestos can also be a component of the skim coat used in 1950s & 60s plaster walls. The testing called it joint compound, which didn’t seem like much, but the EPA removal guy said it’s the top coat used to smooth out the backerboard used before drywall became common, so it’s not just joints but the entire wall. Who would have ever suspected?