Spackle is a generic term for any number of powdered construction materials that when mixed with water, form what is variously known as a spackling compound, plaster, or simply spackle. The primary purpose of this substance is to fill holes and cracks in wall plaster, ceilings, drywall and wood paneling prior to painting.
Prior to the early 1980s, spackling compounds (known as “polyfilla” in the U.K. , Canada and Australia ) contained as much as 20% asbestos fiber by volume. The purpose was to strengthen the material as well as provide a degree of flame resistance. There is little doubt that such use of asbestos prevented billions of dollars in property damage over the years, but the cost in terms of human health and suffering has been high.
According to an article which appeared in the May 1979 American Industrial Hygiene Association Journal, even after the federal government and the Environmental Protection Agency had passed regulations limiting the amount of asbestos in such materials to 1% or less, air tests at construction sites showed “fiber concentrations exceeding, by several times, the maximum level permitted by United States Government regulations.”
Today, there are a number of brands of spackling compound that are marketed as “asbestos free.” This claim may even be true in many cases. However, those who work in construction or use spackle on a regular basis should be aware that under the “Grace Rule” (so-called because this legislation was written by corporate lobbyists for W.R. Grace & Company), these products may still contain 1% asbestos or more and legally be marketed as “asbestos free.”
If you are involved with a renovation or demolition project on an older home or other structure, it’s important to keep in mind that sawing, drilling or hammering old drywall and ceilings is almost certain to create conditions in which asbestos fibers become friable – which is a crumbling state in which these deadly fibers are released into the air.
There is no reliable way to identify the presence of asbestos in old building materials by simply looking at them. This determination can only be made by laboratory tests of air samples in the area. If in doubt, the safest course of action is to hire professional asbestos contractors for the removal of all asbestos materials prior to starting work. If the building is not your own personal residence, you may be legally required to do so.