Joint compound is a plaster-like substance, typically white in color, used to seal the joints made between two sheets of drywall. It was also commonly utilized to conceal any dimples made from the drilling of screws, or to fix any other blemishes that might have affected the surface area of the drywall. Joint compound came in two basic forms: the traditional dry mixture, or the ready-mixed product. Up until the late ‘70s, both of these forms could have contained asbestos. Some companies, who hadn’t used asbestos in their joint compounds, began adding it to their product, even after a study in 1964 had shown that exposure to this carcinogen exposed people to an increased risk of developing lung cancer and asbestosis.
Once it was revealed that individuals who worked with asbestos-containing joint compound were exposed to high levels of the cancer-causing fiber, many companies attempted to find a substitute for the asbestos in their mixtures.
One company carried on with the distribution and marketing of the asbestos-containing variety, swearing its safety, after sales of their asbestos-free mixture began to suffer. It was not until the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned its use in 1977, however, that the company discontinued the product. Nevertheless, the asbestos ban did not take into account those products already on the market, so there was still the possibility that asbestos-containing joint compound was used in the construction of homes after 1977.
Joint compound containing asbestos is not necessarily a health risk to those who find it in their homes. If it remains intact and in good condition, the danger of asbestos becoming airborne is quite limited. Only after it is damaged, or begins to deteriorate, does the asbestos begin to pose an actual health risk. The same risk applies to home-improvement projects where the joint compound is disturbed and/or sanded. Dust containing asbestos is released into the air, and even if an individual may be wearing a mask, the particles will eventually settle onto surfaces—with the continued potential of becoming airborne again. If the asbestos fibers are inhaled, the individual is at a risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses, including mesothelioma, a rare, yet aggressive form of cancer that affects the area surrounding the lungs, abdomen and heart.
If a person is uncertain if the joint compound used in the construction of a home contains asbestos, a skilled contractor should be employed. They understand how to fully work and dispose of those materials and products.