Do 1980s ceilings contain asbestos?

Doctor's strict advice to home buyers not shared by all

Q: Could you advise about "popcorn" ceilings and whether they have asbestos in them? How do you get rid of them and is it expensive? We are thinking of buying a 1987 house that has these ceilings throughout. Our doctor recommended getting the material tested before stepping into the house. Could you advise us about this matter?

A: Blown-on textured ceilings, aka "popcorn," may contain asbestos depending on when they were installed. In the late 1970s the use of asbestos in building products was banned because of the health risks. The 1987 vintage home you have your eye on probably doesn’t contain asbestos. But the only way to tell for sure is to have the ceiling tested. For more information on asbestos, check out the Environmental Protection Agency Web site, www.epa.gov/asbestos.

We don’t agree with your doctor. You can set foot in the house and you can safely live in it. Even if the ceiling contains asbestos, it very probably isn’t a threat to your health.

According to the EPA, "Asbestos is made up of microscopic bundles of fibers that may become airborne when asbestos-containing materials are damaged or disturbed. When these fibers get into the air they may be inhaled into the lungs and cause significant health problems." Unless the ceiling is crumbling to dust, there is no health hazard. You’re best served by leaving it alone.

Asbestos is present in many building materials of the past. A homeowner might find it in roofing and siding shingles made of asbestos cement, insulation (in houses built between 1930 and 1950), vinyl flooring, heating duct insulation in older homes and in textured paint and patching compounds used on wall and ceiling joints (use of which was banned in 1977).

Test it by submitting samples to a laboratory for analysis. The cost is minimal. Laboratories are listed in the Yellow Pages under "Asbestos – Consulting and Testing." Obtain the samples by wetting a small piece of the ceiling and scraping it into a plastic bag. Ask the lab how much you need to provide. Take the sample from a closet or another out-the-way place.

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If the test shows the ceiling that does not contain asbestos, there are two ways to get rid of the popcorn look: Cover it up or scrape it off. A third option, if you want to forgo the hassle of scraping or covering, is to paint it. Painting will make it look fresh and eliminate the need for testing because any asbestos in the ceiling will be sealed in by the paint. The disadvantage is that you will retain the popcorn look. If you paint, we recommend using an airless sprayer because the popcorn "kernels" tend to get caught in the roller.

If the asbestos test is positive, removal is not a do-it-yourself project. We recommend that you hire a licensed and certified asbestos abatement contractor to remove the popcorn. Be prepared for significant mess and expense. Inhaled in large amounts, asbestos can cause serious health problems, including lung cancer, mesothelioma (a cancer of the lining of the chest and the abdominal cavity) and asbestosis (scarring of the lungs with fibrous tissue).

In past columns we’ve advocated drywalling over popcorn ceilings. Covering is a simple way to get rid of the "look" without messing with asbestos removal. The job is affordable, especially if you do the work yourself. The cost of materials is only about 25 cents a square foot. Covering the ceilings with drywall will encapsulate any asbestos that might be present. But be advised that the known presence of asbestos must be disclosed to a buyer should you sell the property.

Recently, Bill and our brother Bryan contracted for scraping off "popcorn." Neither had to deal with asbestos. Bill hired Pacific Coast Drywall, a San Francisco Bay Area company. They will scrape the ‘corn, repair any dings, texture the ceiling to match the walls, and paint if you want. Bryan, who lives in Idaho, used a local "moonlighter." Bryan paid $2 per square foot for scraping and texturing; Bill paid $2.75 per square foot for the same work. If you contract it out, expect to pay about $2.25 to $3 per square foot.

Scraping is a straightforward process if the ceiling hasn’t been painted. It can be a do-it-yourself project. But it’s seriously messy. If the ceiling has been painted, removal will require chemical agents to penetrate the paint. That job is better left to the pros.

To scrape an unpainted, non-asbestos-containing ceiling, follow these steps:

1. Cover the floor with drop cloths and the walls with plastic sheeting.

2. Mix liquid detergent and water at a ratio of 1 cup of liquid detergent to 5 gallons of water.

3. Using a tank sprayer, spray the popcorn. Allow 20 minutes for the solution to saturate the popcorn.

4. Once saturated, scrape the texture off with a 4- to 6-inch drywall knife.

5. Fold up the debris in the drop cloths, patch any dings on the ceiling, texture and paint.

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