Featuring America's Home Inspector: Nationally Syndicated Columnist, Barry Stone

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: According to my home inspector, the popcorn ceilings in the home I’m buying have about 3% asbestos. He said this is not a problem, but I’m very concerned. Now I realize that I’ve been exposed to asbestos in many of the homes in which I’ve lived. So I’m trying to absorb this news without letting it depress me. How do I reassure myself that these ceilings are ok? I have 2 young sons who are active! What if they throw balls and things against the ceilings? What if they stand on their bunk bed and scrape the ceiling? How can I live with the knowledge that all this asbestos is hanging over our heads? Kim

Dear Kim: Don’t be overly alarmed about asbestos ceilings. High anxiety over residential asbestos is very common, given the many scary articles that have been published over the past 30 years. Asbestos panic is inconsistent with the actual level of risk posed by asbestos-containing materials such as acoustic “popcorn” ceilings.

All of the studies that connect asbestos exposure with lung disease involve people who have worked with asbestos in a full-time professional capacity, either manufacturing or installing asbestos products. It has never been proven that low-level exposures in a home cause health problems. Fear and worry over asbestos- containing materials in a home are therefore unwarranted.

Levels of 1% to 3% of asbestos are often found in acoustic ceilings installed prior to 1980 and in some homes built through the mid-1980s. Fortunately, the asbestos fibers in popcorn ceilings are not released unless the material is disturbed. One way to decrease the likelihood of fiber release is to have the ceilings thoroughly spray-painted. Paint seals the particles that comprise the textured surface, fusing them into a unified crust that is much less likely to crumble when touched, scraped, or impacted by indoor ball playing or by romping on the upper bunk.

Additionally, there are many acoustic ceilings that do not contain asbestos, and home inspectors should not make quantitative statements about asbestos content unless a written report from an asbestos test lab is available. To specify that a ceiling may contain a particular amount of asbestos, without a report to substantiate that disclosure, is professionally inappropriate for a home inspector.

Before assuming that the ceilings in a particular home contain asbestos, send three random samples of the material to an EPA certified lab for testing. If the results are positive and you decide to remove the ceiling texture, contact a licensed asbestos abatement contractor for a bid.

In recent years, many homeowners have removed acoustic ceilings for purposes of cosmetic renovation, not because of concern over asbestos. But when confronted with the high cost of asbestos removal, some have opted to cover the ceilings with a second layer of drywall. However, those who take this approach should be aware that disclosure will be necessary when the home is eventually sold. Otherwise, an unsuspecting future owner could contaminate the interior of the home when demolishing a ceiling that contains concealed asbestos.

For further information regarding residential asbestos, check the website of the Consumer Products Safety Commission.