Asbestos, a mineral family made up of dense, tightly-packed fibers, was added to many types of construction materials from the early 1900s to the 1970s. One type of material that commonly contained asbestos was acoustic finishes – substances that were applied to the inside surfaces of walls or ceilings, especially in living areas and bedrooms, often to provide better sound insulation.
A common example of an acoustic finish that was used in home construction beginning in the late 1950s was the “popcorn ceiling,” so named because the finish had the appearance of popcorn when it was applied. Not only did this provide insulation against noise, but it also had the advantage of being cheap and easy to apply, as well as covering up problems or defects in the ceiling.
As more became known about the dangers of asbestos, it became clear that the disadvantages of using asbestos in building construction far outweighed the benefits. When bound up with the building material, asbestos presents no problems. When the building material is damaged, however, even by drilling a hole into it, the asbestos fibers are released into the air. Because they are so small, they are easily inhaled into the lungs, where they can cause problems ranging from scarring (asbestosis) to certain types of cancer (mesothelioma).
Even though the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) outlawed the use of asbestos in 1978, the use of existing stocks of asbestos-containing materials was not prohibited. This means that homes or commercial buildings constructed in the early 1980s might still contain acoustic finishes with asbestos added.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to confirm just by looking at a ceiling or wall that asbestos-containing acoustic finishes were used. If the owner knows the manufacturer of the product, Internet research may yield answers; otherwise, a sample of the material will need to be analyzed. This may not be the best course of action if the acoustic finish is in good condition, since the material must be damaged for the asbestos fibers to be released.
If the area where the acoustic finish was applied is damaged or has the potential to be damaged (for example, if renovation or remodeling will be occurring), then the services of a contractor or asbestos abatement company must be retained. It is extremely important that asbestos removal and disposal be done by someone who is trained in the proper handling of this potentially dangerous material.