Asbestos insulation is a type of insulation material that uses naturally occurring minerals characterized by great strength and resistance to heat and chemicals. It was also effective in soundproofing and low cost.
These properties caused contractors to heavily rely on asbestos for insulation purposes, deeming it the gold standard for home insulation between the 1950s and 1970s.
However, the EPA started banning asbestos in the USA due to its hazardous impact on people’s health and safety. Multiple regulations were issued from the beginning of the 1970s and are still ongoing.
Old houses built in the 20th century may have asbestos insulation, putting their residents at risk of exposure. In today’s article, I’ll be helping you identify the presence of asbestos in your home and how to properly deal with it.
Where Asbestos Insulation May Be Found in Old Houses
Asbestos insulation is more likely to occur in older houses, especially those built before the 1980s. But where exactly would you find it around your home?
Generally speaking, any part of the house that’s been insulated is a potential host of asbestos insulation.
Less visible spots of your home that are most prone to heat transfer are usually where you can find insulation material, which may feature asbestos. Here are some common examples:
1. Pipes and Ducts
Pipes located in basements, utility rooms, furnace rooms, and other service parts within the house may be wrapped in asbestos-containing insulation material.
Metal ductwork may also be a site of asbestos insulation, such as air conditioning ducts. It particularly resides in the lining of flange joints to create an airtight seal and prevent flames from spreading within the ductwork.
2. Walls and Ceilings
Builders often used asbestos insulating boards and asbestos cement sheets when constructing walls to hinder the transfer of heat and the spread of fire.
Asbestos insulation was also widely used in ceilings and roofs to fill empty spaces for thermal insulation and fireproofing.
Ceilings were also covered in asbestos insulation to curb heat transfer. Types of asbestos ceilings include vermiculite spray-on insulation and asbestos fiber cement sheets.
3. Attic Insulation
Asbestos-containing materials were frequently used in attic insulation since it’s a major site of potential energy loss and thermal transfer.
Loose-fill asbestos insulation was blown or poured through tubes placed inside attic floors.
Characteristics of Asbestos Insulation in Old Houses
The most common types of asbestos insulation you can find in old houses are loose-fill or vermiculite insulation and pipe insulation. Here’s how to identify each one:
Loose-fill insulation, also known as vermiculite insulation and blown-in insulation, is the most common type of asbestos insulation.
- Appearance: vermiculite loose-fill insulation is characterized by a lumpy, loose, and pebble-like appearance. Unlike most blanket and batt insulation, vermiculite insulation contains no paper or other backing types.
- Texture: vermiculite loose-fill insulation has a granular, fluffy texture.
- Color: vermiculite loose-fill insulation shows grayish, silvery gold, or brownish coloring.
Pipe Asbestos Insulation
Asbestos insulation will most likely be fully wrapped around the pipes, coupled with an outer casing to keep the insulation layer in place.
- Appearance: pipe asbestos insulation has a signature look of corrugated paper or cardboard.
- Texture: pipe asbestos insulation has a ridged texture at the edge of the pipe.
- Color: pipe asbestos insulation shows grayish or off-white coloring
Health Risks Associated With Asbestos Exposure
Health professionals and researchers have connected exposure to asbestos to several serious diseases such as:
- Lung cancer
- Pleural effusions
- Lung lining scarring
- Gastrointestinal cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Throat cancer
The danger of exposure to asbestos lies in inhaling its particles.
Asbestos can break down into tiny fibers that remain suspended in the air for days. A person can easily breathe in these fibers, which then move deep into their lungs due to their minute size.
Asbestos particles stay lodged in the lung tissue, causing inflammation and scarring. The likelihood and severity of developing an asbestos-related disease depend on multiple factors, including:
- The duration of exposure to asbestos
- The amount of asbestos the person was exposed to
- Other risk factors such as a pre-existing lung condition
- Lifestyle habits such as smoking
Symptoms of Asbestos Exposure
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty in swallowing
- Developing hoarse voice
- Chest or abdomen pains
- Loss of appetite
- Notable weight loss
- Bloody coughed up fluid
- Face/neck swelling
People who get exposed to asbestos don’t become sick right away. The symptoms of asbestos-related diseases are long-term, which means they appear years later.
Exposed individuals may remain symptom-free for 10 to 40 years. In most cases, asbestos diseases are impossible to cure.
If you suspect that your house has asbestos insulation, proper identification and removal of the asbestos is critical to your health and that of your loved ones.
Methods for Identifying Asbestos Insulation in Old Houses
Confirming that your house insulation does contain asbestos should be your first order of business before deciding to remove it. There are two ways to go about this:
Call in a Professional Asbestos Inspector
The safest method for identifying asbestos insulation is to hire an asbestos-testing company. It’s more expensive, but it keeps you away from safety risks.
They’ll schedule a visit where a professional inspector will come down to the house to perform a visual inspection of any potentially hazardous areas and then remove bits of the suspicious insulation materials for testing.
The inspector will leave with the sample(s) and the company will get back to you with the result after analysis in a lab.
Be sure to hire an asbestos inspector from a company that doesn’t do removal to avoid interest conflicts.
Use a DIY KIT
You should tread very carefully when it comes to handling potential asbestos-containing insulation yourself.
Using a DIY kit is more affordable than hiring a professional asbestos inspector. It’s also quicker and gives you control of when and where to do the sampling/testing.
However, the DIY route holds the risk of asbestos contamination and is prone to sampling errors. Additionally, inexperienced individuals may not be able to pinpoint all sites of asbestos around the house.
That said, the most important step of DIY asbestos identification is to put on protective gear to ensure your safety.
From there, you can move on to the following steps:
- Seal off all windows and doorways connected to the area where you’ll remove the sample.
- Lay down plastic sheeting.
- Use a spray bottle containing liquid dish soap and water to freely wet the spot where you’ll remove the sample.
- Cut out a small portion of the material, preferably from a crumbly section. If you can’t get a solid bit, scoop as much of the settled dust as possible or use a damp tissue to collect dust.
- Place the sample in the bag included with the kit and seal it off.
- Send the bag to the lab.
Steps for Handling and Removing Asbestos Insulation in Old Houses
If your asbestos test results come back positive, you may choose to not remove the insulation if it’s undamaged and won’t be disrupted in the future.
But if the insulation is damaged or you want to play it as safely as possible, you should get rid of the asbestos insulation. As with the previous section, there are two ways to go about asbestos removal:
Hire a Licensed Asbestos Removal Company
The safest and easiest way to get rid of asbestos insulation is to hire a licensed company to do it for you. It’s the more expensive option but it keeps you and your family away from harm’s way.
Not to mention, hiring a professional saves you time and effort, and prevents potential environmental contamination from a poorly-executed asbestos removal job.
DIY Asbestos Removal
There’s nothing illegal about performing asbestos removal in your house as long as you:
- Follow safety precautions
- Obtain the necessary permits from your local building department
- Discard the asbestos waste in an authorized place
Here are the general steps for removing asbestos insulation yourself:
- Prepare the action area (emptying, sealing off windows/doors/vents, laying down plastic sheeting)
- Remove manually after wetting the material with a water-detergent mixture
- Clean up the work area (use HEPA vacuum and dispose of protective gear along with asbestos waste)
Necessary Safety Precautions
- Wear protective gear (disposable gloves, disposable coveralls, respirator with HEPA filter, safety goggles/glasses, and boot covers)
- Don’t use power tools, water blast, cut, drill, or scrub when removing the material
- Don’t eat or drink in the work area
Asbestos exposure can cause severe health problems including lung cancer. Proper identification and removal of asbestos insulation is critical to your and your loved ones’ safety.
I recommend leaving this job to professionals, especially if the problem area is large.
But if you want to take the DIY route and the problem zone isn’t too large, be sure to follow adequate safety precautions.