Decorative plaster acoustic plaster was a popular addition to homes and commercial buildings beginning in the 1940s. Swirled, textured or scalloped ceilings; plaster moldings; elaborate column tops; and other decorative motifs found their way into homes of all price ranges. As with many building materials, asbestos fibers were often added to the plaster to improve sound insulation and provide other benefits.
The characteristic that made asbestos such a popular additive was its strength and durability, due to the fact that it is made up of millions of tiny, dense, tightly-packed fibers. This characteristic also proved dangerous – when building materials containing asbestos were damaged, those millions of tiny fibers were released into the air, where they could easily be inhaled, lodge in the lungs, and do tremendous damage many years in the future. Scarring in the lungs and rare but deadly forms of cancer were all blamed on prolonged exposure to asbestos.
Even though asbestos has been banned from the construction industry since the late 1970s, it can be found still in many homes and commercial buildings, especially those built before 1980. As older homes and buildings are renovated – or even just through deterioration of the acoustic plaster due to age – the potential is there for the release of asbestos fibers.
The only way to confirm the presence of asbestos in any decorative or acoustic plaster is to have a sample analyzed. This is not recommended if the plaster is in good condition and there are no plans for renovation or remodeling. As long as the asbestos is bound up in the building material, no fibers are released. Even taking a sample improperly can release some fibers, so it’s best to have a trained professional inspect and sample the area.
If the plaster is crumbling or damaged, however – or if the home or building is going to be torn down or renovated – then a professional contractor or asbestos abatement company must be used to repair or remove the acoustic plaster. Only someone who has been trained in the proper handling and disposal of asbestos-containing materials and who follows the appropriate local and state regulations should be used. Improper handling of this material can be extremely hazardous for an untrained home handyman. The health department or Environmental Protection Agency office may keep lists of local approved professionals, and can also be a good source of advice for maintaining safe home and work environments when asbestos is present.