Ask the Inspector: Are Asbestos Ceilings Dangerous?

AsbestosProperty inspector Barry Stone takes on the asbestos question in the L.A. Times Real Estate Section:

Question: I have not had a good night’s sleep since reading about asbestos. We’ve lived in our home for 30 years and have popcorn ceilings. After all these years, is it too late to have them removed, or are we already doomed? Some companies offer asbestos testing if you send them a sample, but is it safe for us to remove the sample ourselves?

Answer: You are not doomed. The belief that small or periodic exposure to asbestos fibers poses a major health risk has no factual basis. The connection between asbestos exposure and respiratory disease involves those who worked with asbestos materials on a daily basis, as manufacturers or installers. Heavy exposure to airborne asbestos fibers can cause lung cancer and other severe respiratory diseases, such as mesothelioma. But the mere presence of asbestos ceiling texture is not a cause for worry or alarm.

The drilling of holes in acoustic ceilings should be avoided unless proper precautions are taken, but the fact that you once made a few holes in your ceiling should not be remembered as the moment when your fate was sealed.

Asbestos is a mineral fiber, commonly found in certain rock formations. It has been used in numerous manufactured materials for more than 100 years. Common asbestos-containing products include automobile brake linings, fireproofing in high-rise buildings, air-duct insulation and a long list of residential building materials such as floor tiles, asphalt roof shingles, drywall joint compound and acoustic ceiling texture — commonly known as “popcorn” ceilings.

In the early 1970s, the gradual elimination of asbestos from many products began, but there was never an absolute ban on asbestos products. In the case of textured ceilings, the manufacture of acoustic material containing asbestos was prohibited in 1978, but the sale and installation of existing supplies were allowed to continue. Therefore, many homes that were built through the mid-1980s had asbestos ceilings.

Asbestos ceilings are often removed in ways that are illegal and potentially hazardous because of misinformation among tradespeople.

To determine whether your ceilings contain asbestos, testing by a certified lab is necessary. You can hire a professional to take the samples, or you can take them yourself. Precautions should be taken to avoid the release of airborne fibers. The material should be wetted, and a HEPA-type face mask (available at hardware stores) should be worn. A minimum of three samples should be taken from various rooms because asbestos content in acoustic ceilings may not be uniformly distributed.

If the lab report confirms that you have asbestos, removal is not necessary. What matters is that you avoid damage to the material. A common approach is to encapsulate the surface with paint. Those who elect removal should have the work done by a licensed asbestos abatement contractor.

Barry Stone may be contacted at