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Throughout the centuries, humans have made some pretty bone-headed mistakes when it comes to our environment. We used to put lead in paint. We used to use radium to make watch dials glow. We still pump tons and tons of pollutants into our atmosphere and burn coal to generate electricity. And we used to use asbestos to build and insulate our buildings.
Since the 1930s, it has been well known that asbestos can be harmful, but it wasn’t until the mid-’70s that its dangers were well documented and understood. The Toxic Substances Control Act regulated the material in 1976, controlling the development, use, and disposal of the substance. In subsequent years, it has been all but phased out in the U.S., although there are still some applications where the material is used.1
We’re going to talk about how to tell if your house contains this dangerous carcinogen in just a bit, but first, let's understand a little more about the material itself.
Asbestos is the blanket term for six naturally occurring minerals that are made up of heat-resistant fibers. It was used widely in thousands upon thousands of consumer products before its dangers were well understood.2
All forms of asbestos are dangerous, and no amount of exposure is considered “safe.” But what exactly are you looking for?
Pro Tip: Asbestos isn’t the only safety threat to consider. Check out our security system buyers guide to make sure you’re doing everything you can to protect your family.
Asbestos is a rough, crumbly material, but it can come in different forms. There are three main types of asbestos: crocidolite, amosite, and chrysotile.3 We’ll go through each briefly.
This is the most hazardous form of asbestos and was commonly used to insulate pipes and create cement products. Its fibers are extremely thin, and it’s identified by its bluish coloration.
This is the most commonly used type of asbestos and can be found in roofs, ceilings, walls, and flooring materials. It was also used to insulate pipes and ductwork. It’s white in color and has layered curly fibers.
This is the second most common form of asbestos, but it is the most carcinogenic. It’s found in cement sheets and pipe installation, as well as insulation boards, ceiling tiles, and thermal insulation. It’s brown in color and crumbles easily.
Asbestos is dangerous for humans because it has the ability to break down into tiny, microscopically thin fibers. These fibers can remain airborne for days after they were initially disturbed and, when inhaled, travel deep into the lungs, where they could eventually lodge themselves in lung tissue. Once they’re there, they can cause serious diseases like lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma.4
One of the scary things about asbestos is that you can’t tell when it’s in your environment or hurting your lungs. You won’t be able to smell it or taste it. It won’t make you sneeze, your skin itch, or your throat sore. And since the diseases it causes take years to show up, you might prolong exposure without being aware.
Pro Tip: Asbestos isn’t the only environmental toxin you need to worry about. Check out our guide to the four most common toxic gasses that could be in your home.
We don’t say this to scare you, but to make you aware of how insidious this threat can be to you and your family. You obviously never want to be exposed to this material, so it’s important to know if it might be in your home or not.
The only way to be sure your home is free of asbestos is to have it tested, but there are a few warning signs that your home might contain the substance.5 Those include:
If your home was built before 1980, there’s a chance it might contain asbestos.
If your home contains vermiculite insulation, you might have asbestos as well. If you’re unsure, it’s a good idea to get it tested.
If you have vinyl flooring that was installed between 1950 and 1980, there’s a chance asbestos was used in the creation of the materials or the installation process.
If you have corrugated roofing in an older house, there's a chance asbestos is present.
If the walls of your pre-1980s home were constructed using cement sheets, there’s a chance asbestos was used in their manufacture.
Keep in mind, though, that while you never want to be around asbestos, it’s particularly dangerous if particles become airborne. That means if you’re ever doing any rehab or renovation work in a home that might have asbestos, you need to be especially careful.
If you suspect you might have disturbed a material that contains asbestos, don’t panic. Diseases result from prolonged exposure. Do everything you can to minimize continued disturbance, and leave the area immediately. Get outside and call a local asbestos testing company before re-entering the area.
Even if materials aren’t immediately visible, that doesn’t mean asbestos isn’t present. If your home was built prior to 1980 and you’re planning on doing renovations, you should really get the area tested.
The EPA recommends testing suspect materials if they become damaged, or if you’re planning to renovate an area that might disturb suspect materials.6 Samples should be taken and analyzed by accredited professional inspectors.
Similar to a mold test, testing for asbestos will involve several steps.7 If you suspect a material you’ve disturbed might contain asbestos, here’s what you should do:
If asbestos is detected, removal and remediation will be necessary. Your inspector should be able to help you with next steps.
It’s certainly important to make sure your home is free of potential hazards, and asbestos is a major one for homes built within a particular time frame. If you think you might have asbestos in your home, it’s critical that you call a professional. You don’t want to make a problem worse by trying to handle it yourself.
Mesothelioma Hub. (2023). The History of Asbestos.
Whitmer, Michelle. (2023, Apr 18). Asbestos. Asbestos.com.
Fallon, Nicole. (2022, Apr 7). Solved! What Does Asbestos Look Like? Bob Vila.
Minnesota Department of Health. Health Effects: Asbestos. (2023).
Brown, Angela. (2022, Aug 15). How to Tell If a House Has Asbestos. Angi.
Environmental Protection Agency. (2023). Asbestos Frequently Asked Questions.
RPF Environmental Testing and Consulting Services. (2023). Asbestos Inspection & Survey Reports: What to Expect During Asbestos Inspection.