In many public buildings, including virtually all public schools and offices, dropped, or “suspended” ceilings are used in order to conceal unsightly plumbing, HVAC ducts and/or electrical wiring – or even the underside of the floor above. These false ceilings are suspended from wires attached to a system of aluminum or steel braces that form a grid. Within the squares formed by this grid, acoustic tiles are placed.
In addition to aesthetics, such acoustic tiles or panels also helped to deaden sounds emanating from the building maintenance systems and/or the floor above. Prior to the 1980s, asbestos was a material commonly used in the manufacture of these acoustical tiles, since the building electrical systems and HVAC ducts presented a small, but substantial fire hazard.
Aside from the issue of asbestos, an unfortunate aspect of these older acoustic tiles is the fact that they are frequently found installed in an older type of dropped ceiling structure, which employs a system of interlocking panels. Instead of being installed individually, acoustic tiles in this type of ceiling are installed in such a way that make them difficult to remove without damaging them, thus releasing friable asbestos fibers. Such ceilings have what is known as a “key” tile, which must be removed before the others can be slid out one at a time.
It may be impossible to identify the type of asbestos without the use of polarized light microscopy, but it is possible to identify acoustic tiles that are likely to contain asbestos through visual inspection. The website InspectAPedia has numerous photographs of such acoustical tiles and other building materials likely to contain asbestos.
If it is known or suspected that such acoustical tiles were installed prior to 1985, it is safest to assume that such panels do contain asbestos.
Landlords and building owners should be aware that any workers that are hired to do maintenance work in and/or around acoustical tiles and/or any other materials that may contain asbestos are covered under regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA). Depending on the nature of the work to be done, you may need to have the area tested for asbestos fibers. The amount of fibers detected will assist contractors in determining the level of protection required. The detection of asbestos fibers will also have a great deal of bearing on your duty of protection toward tenants; depending on your state laws, if a tenant becomes ill due to asbestos that you as the building owner failed to inform him/her about, you may be held liable under tort laws.