How to Spot Asbestos

Most of us are aware of the dangers of breathing in asbestos fibers. Exposure to asbestos can result in a host of really serious lung diseases including mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer. Asbestos is a killer, but it's a stealthy one. What does asbestos look like? What does it smell like? How can you detect it in your home? The truth is that it's very hard to tell if your home contains asbestos without taking samples and sending them off to a specialized lab.

Removing materials containing some asbestos
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How to Spot Asbestos

Asbestos in the Home

There are toxic mushrooms that really look poisonous. They are big, scarlet mushrooms spotted with inky black dots. However, other mushrooms that can kill you are tan and medium sized with no particular odor. Asbestos is like the latter mushroom. Nothing about asbestos insulation triggers an alarm. Asbestos tile doesn't smell bad or look odd.

Of course, if you see something in your house labeled "asbestos," you are on notice. Asbestos-containing materials can be identified by a label. However, few building products are labeled with their composition.

A lot of asbestos is found in older homes that were built before people knew that asbestos was bad for you. It's found in household building materials ranging from asbestos floor tiles to asbestos insulation. It's found in loose-fill attic and wall insulation, and there's also asbestos in stucco siding. Some homes have vermiculite attic insulation that contains asbestos.

You can look at asbestos pictures and photos of products containing asbestos all day without learning to identify it. There is simply no manner of telling without testing. Most asbestos in the home is not labeled, but that doesn't mean it's not there.

Dealing with Asbestos Insulation

If you are afraid that there is asbestos in your home, you have two choices. One is to leave it be; the other is to take samples and get them analyzed in laboratories that specialize in asbestos. Which is the better option depends on whether the product containing asbestos is friable. Friable material breaks down easily into particles that you can breathe into your lungs. Nonfriable materials do not crumble easily.

If the material in your house suspected to have asbestos is nonfriable and in good condition, it's best to leave it alone. Asbestos is dangerous only when the fibers are released into the air. That usually doesn't happen with nonfriable materials like siding, roofing products or floor tiles. If you aren't renovating the area or pulling the material out, the odds are that the asbestos fibers will stay encapsulated.

However, with friable asbestos, like that in insulation, acoustical plaster and paper products, the asbestos can get into the air quite easily. That makes it a real danger. If you suspect that you have this type of product, you should call in a professional.

Testing for Asbestos

Visually inspecting your home won't get you very far in figuring out if it contains asbestos. Instead, you have to gather samples of fibers that you suspect to be asbestos and send them to a specialized laboratory for analysis. You can hire a professional to gather the samples for you. Usually, the labs use either polarized light microscopy or transmission electron microscopy testing to figure out if the material contains asbestos.

If you insist on doing it yourself, go to the website of the Environmental Protection Agency for careful instructions on how to collect samples of materials that may contain asbestos. However, many experts, including those at the American Lung Association, suggest that you hire a certified asbestos professional to collect samples for you. That reduces your potential asbestos exposure.


Teo Spengler

Teo Spengler

From Alaska to California, from France's Basque Country to Mexico's Pacific Coast, Teo Spengler has dug the soil, planted seeds and helped trees, flowers and veggies thrive. A professional writer and consummate gardener, Spengler has written about home and garden for Gardening Know How, San Francisco Chronicle, Gardening Guide and Go Banking Rates. She earned a BA from U.C. Santa Cruz, a law degree from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall, and an MA and MFA from San Francisco State. She currently divides her life between San Francisco and southwestern France.