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How to recognize asbestos in buildings: here is a visual guide to identifying asbestos in buildings. This article series assists building buyers, owners or inspectors who need to identify asbestos materials (or probable-asbestos) in buildings by simple visual inspection. In the website sections listed below, we provide photographs and descriptive text of asbestos insulation and other asbestos-containing products to permit identification of definite, probable, or possible asbestos materials in buildings.
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Asbestos Fibers, Asbestos Dust & Asbestos-Containing Materials that can be Identified by Visual Inspection
While an expert lab test using polarized light microscopy (and in some cases TEM) may be needed to identify the specific type of asbestos fiber, the percentage content of asbestos in a material, or to identify the presence of asbestos in air or dust samples, many asbestos-containing building products not only are obvious and easy to recognize, but since there were not other look-alike products that were not asbestos, a visual identification of this material can be virtually a certainty in many cases.
Use These Helpful Guides for Visual Identification of Asbestos-Containing Products Found On or In Buildings
Asbestos fibers and dust are not the only indoor air quality particle that is a potential concern in buildings. We have written about the possible irritating and perhaps health concerns associated with fiberglass insulation dust and fragments in buildings
The US EPA indicates that not all asbestos-containing products are dangerous. A health risk exists only when asbestos fibers are released from a product [into the air where they are inhaled for example]. Products that are friable (easily crumbled or made into dust that is easily airborne) are more dangerous than products in which binders immobilize the asbestos fibers.
EPA also indicates that not everyone exposed to asbestos will develop an asbestos-related illness or disease. Most people exposed to small amounts of asbestos do not develop asbestos-related health problems. Cigarette smokers are at much higher risk of asbestos-related disease.
Quoting from the US EPA Basic Advice on asbestos in homes:
Friable, damaged asbestos materials in a living area or such materials located where the asbestos is likely to be carried to an occupied space need professional asbestos remediation.
If you are cleaning-up in a building area where asbestos products may have been dislodged, such as a basement where asbestos pipe insulation has fallen to the floor, the US EPA recommends avoiding causing airborne dust and debris - a condition that could be harmful.
How to recognize asbestos materials in buildings, Photographs of asbestos in building products, List of asbestos-containing building materials
We are monitoring studies of possible health risks from other products containing carbon nanotubes. The New York Times reported that to date no illnesses have been reported concerning nanotube-containing articles and that current popular consumer products such as tennis rackets that contain nanotubes are of little risk to consumers. But because nanotube-based fibers are very small, they could pose a health risk.
Consumer caution (not fear) are advised. Carbon nanotubes include bundles of fibers that are similar to but more uniform than naturally-occurring asbestos fibers. The Times article "In Study, Researchers Find Nanotubes May Pose Health Risks Similar to Asbestos", New York Times 21 May 2008 p. A-22, reported on an article published at the website of the journal Nature Nanotechnology on 5/21/08.
For details about carbon nanotube health concerns, and health research regarding nanotechnology in industrial or research processes see Nanomaterials Hazards
Also see Micro-Photographs of Dust from the World Trade Center collapse following the 9/11/01 attack. Links to U.S. government and other authoritative research and advice are included.
As we discuss at ASBESTOS REMOVAL, Amateur, Incomplete, building owners arranging for asbestos cleanup, or any other environmental cleanup for that matter, should be sure that the company they are using is properly certified, licensed, and that the work is conducted with proper supervision and by workers who themselves are properly trained.
Failure to take these precautions risks serious consequences including contamination of other building areas by asbestos dust and debris, health risks and harm to the cleanup workers themselves, and future health risks and harm to building occupants as well as potential issues should the property later be offered for sale.
Watch out: in 2010 The New York Times reported [paraphrasing from that article] that over a five year period beginning in 2001 hundreds of asbestos-removal training certificates were given to people who had completed no training whatsoever.
An example of a simple asbestos test report from a certified asbestos testing lab is shown in this asbestos test result.
Stuff that is Not Asbestos nor Likely to be Asbestos Containing
It will be patently obvious that despite the enormous list of products in which asbestos was used, the list of materials that do not and never did contain asbestos will be still longer - so long we won't attempt to list all such items.
But the question of whether or not certain materials contained harmful levels of asbestos has come up often for certain products.
Those we will describe here.
Reader Question: does the brown insulating board found under bowling alley lane material contain asbestos?
On the underside of bowling lane floors there is a fiberboard type material I believed was used for sound dampening. I've handled and ripped off this material so many times without once thinking what it was- I think I was told it was homosote and harmless. Since many of these bowling lanes were installed many years ago, it worried me even more. Now I'm not so sure what it is and scared at the thought of what it could be.
Also, if you have those names or contact info for anyone who might be willing to test this material for me, that would also be incredibly helpful. I can't thank you enough for your help with this- feel free to call or email me back with any information. - A.S. 11/5/2013
Reply: The material looks like and probably is a wood fiber insulating board - not asbestos-containing. But protect yourself from demolition dust.
The material I can see in your online photos is almost certainly wood fiber based Homasote type insulating board. That is not an asbestos product. You can see more examples of this product at SHEATHING, FIBERBOARD
If nevertheless you want to have as sample of the material tested for asbestos content, the cost is usually minor - abour $50. U.S. You can use any certified asbestos testing laboratory - and can find one via help given at ASBESTOS TESTING LAB LIST.
Details of this question & answer are at SHEATHING, FIBERBOARD ASBESTOS CONTENT or select a topic from the More Reading links shown below.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Question: Was asbestos used in mobile home metal ceilings?
was any type of asbestos insulation used in mobile home metal ceiling? - Morris 11/2/11
Question: Is the yellow & brown insulating board found under wall paneling in my 1950's home an asbestos insulating product?
Question: I am currently renovating a home that was built in the early 1950s. The entire second floor was covered with wood paneling. Under the paneling, is 1/2 inch "board" all around the room.
It's yellow on one side (smooth), and brown (paper color/looks like possible cardboard) on the other, and has a type of "fiber" content. I ripped out a whole bunch of it, and now my throat is irritated. Has anyone ever heard of/seen this product? Does anyone know if it contains asbestos? Please let me know. Jim 1/3/12
Thanks Dan, do you know if these products usually contained asbestos? Jim
Wood-product insulating means to indicate made of wood materials. I have not found a reference indicating that manufacturers added asbestos to wood product insulating boards, though given the thousands of uses of asbestos, no one can issue a guarantee without testing.
Keep in mind that dust from demolition contains a lot of very irritating materials, including the sorts of items I listed above.
Question: Is the white wooly stuff insulating and labeled Eagle-Picher found in the attic of my 1947 home asbestos?
I was in my attic the other day and there is what looks like wool up there. My house was built in 1947, I'm not sure if it has asbestos in it or not, some of it is white in color and some is black in color and around the furnace I found and piece of paper that says eagle-picher insulation. - Robert 1/5/12
Robert, take a look at our photo-guide to identifying building insulation materials, beginning at
Question: Do gas fireplace logs contain asbestos?
We have a great gas fireplace, but lately i have become suspicious that there may be asbestos in the embers below? There is something yellowish and fluffy. It is an open fireplace. We just bought the house (built 1959) and asked both the inspector and a fireplace specialist if it was asbestos and they said no, but how can you tell? I plan on getting in tested, just feeling anxious in the meantime. - Cat 1/6/12
Question: A baby crib was stored near vermiculite insulation. Is the baby crib safe if I clean it?
I have a baby crib stored in my parents attack. It probably has vermiculite insulation loosely laid between the floor boards. Is the crib safe if I clean it? - Pam 5/15/12
Question: What is the Best Way to Collect an Asbestos-Suspect Material Sample for Testing
We have a large amount of insulation and a few other materials in our home that we suspect are or contain asbestos and would like to know the proper way to collect a sample to send to an asbestos testing lab. - Anon. 5/30/12
Reply: How To Identify & Test Materials That Contain Asbestos
If despite the health risks or legal risks involvd you nevertheless choose to take the samples yourself, take care not to release asbestos fibers into the air or onto yourself. Material that is in good condition and will not be disturbed (by remodeling, for example) should be left alone.
Only material that is damaged or will be disturbed should be sampled. Anyone who samples asbestos-containing materials should have as much information as possible on the handling of asbestos before sampling, and at a minimum, should observe the procedures described a ASBESTOS SAMPLE COLLECTION - and check with the lab's instructions when you contact a certified test lab via ASBESTOS TESTING LAB LIST
Questions & answers or comments about what building materials may contain asbestos, visual identification of asbestos-containing materials in buildings, and possible asbestos material identification by testing, use, age, appearance.
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