Hugh Cairns: Asbestos in popcorn ceilings

Q. We are planning on removing the popcorn ceiling on the main floor and would like to know if it may contain asbestos. Also in your opinion is it better to remove it or cover it with new drywall. Thank again, Kelly and Debbie.


A. There were many products used in construction that contained asbestos over the years, but it is has been quite some time since asbestos has been used widely.

In the case of popcorn (or stipple, textured, stucco) ceilings, the use of asbestos was banned in the late 70’s, however the inventory of the product was likely depleted in the early 80’s.

The thing about asbestos is that one can’t tell if a construction material contains it simply by looking at it. The only way to prove the existence of asbestos is to have the material of concern tested. This means that you will have to obtain a sufficient sample of the material and send it off to a laboratory that test for asbestos in building materials.

Laboratories that identify asbestos in building materials use highly sophisticated microscopes to determine the presence and amount of asbestos in the sample; in most cases they will determine the type of asbestos too. In most cases, a sample of the popcorn ceiling is obtained through safe methods and inserted into a zip-lock back and labelled. It’s safe to say that you’ll need a sandwich bag full, but check with the laboratory that you wish to work with about how much of a sample they need.

You’ll need to fill out a simple form to track the processing of the material. This form is often referred to as a Chain of Custody, sounds official, but necessary. Laboratories will not analyze samples without a completed chain of custody, so make sure it accompanies your sample material. Usually it only takes a couple of days to get your results, but if you’re pressed for time expedited testing may be available.

So, once you determine the asbestos content if any, you’ll have a clearer picture of how you are going to tackle your project. If there isn’t any, then I’d recommend a simple scrape using a garden sprayer, a 10” putty knife and some hard, messy work.

If you have significant levels of asbestos you’ll have to weigh out professional versus DIY removal. Of course I reluctantly have to recommend professional removal and disposal, but smaller scopes of work may not require professional involvement.

I wouldn’t add a second sheet of drywall on the ceiling. It’s a ton of work, weighs a lot, costly and time consuming. You’ll have to deal with electrical boxes too. In the end, you’ll only have sandwiched the affected material, so it will still be present.

Should you be worried about exposure to the ceiling in its present state or during the removal process? That’s the loaded question. Exposure to asbestos has proven to be a cancerous. However, many people who are exposed to asbestos contained in popcorn ceilings (and other building materials) never develop cancers. Having said that, there is no “safe” level of exposure to asbestos, so when removing popcorn ceiling textures or any or material in your home that may contain asbestos, it’s essential that you have the material tested first, and if necessary, properly removed. One should be cognizant of the fact that asbestos cancer diagnoses are uncommon, so based on that, it is highly unlikely that you, or your family, will ever have to deal with these diseases from a popcorn ceiling.

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About the Author

When you need advice or guidance with DIY home improvement and repairs, Hugh Cairns can help you with the answers.

Home improvements can be rewarding, turn your home into a nicer more comfortable place to live, and increase its value.

Whether you are renovating your kitchen, converting a loft, giving a room a lick of paint or making improvements to your home’s energy efficiency, this column is here to guide you with useful information and key things to remember.

Do you have a renovation question or concern? Please feel free to send Hugh your questions. Contact him through www.subject2homeinspections.com

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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