I was driving to a real estate showing appointment this morning at Sonoran Mountain Ranch in Peoria. I tuned into a nationally-syndicated home improvement radio show on 1510 AM. Saturday mornings are great for this type of radio program.

On this particular episode, the hosts were taking live calls from homeowners with maintenance and remodeling questions.

What I heard made me stop the car and call into the show.

Moments earlier, a caller introduced her problem to the hosts and asked what to do about her popcorn ceilings. She wanted flat ceilings in her home and the textured popcorn ceilings were now dated and undesirable to her.

The hosts of the program advised her on removal methods. Wetting the texture first and scraping with a wide blade was the recommended course of action. Their advice came without inquiring about the age of her home or if she had the ceiling material previously tested.

I listened intently for the hosts to offer a disclaimer about this type of ceiling texture. Perhaps they would ask her the age of her home. Would the advise the caller to investigate first whether or not she was dealing with asbestos? Maybe refer her to an environmental testing lab?

Nothing happened.

The call ended with the homeowner thanking the hosts for their advice. She was probably headed out to the hardware store minutes later to purchase a spray bottle and drywall broad knife. I decided to call and leave a recorded message with the show.

Homeowners who are unaware of the history of popcorn ceilings in older homes could be unknowingly putting themselves in harm’s way when remodeling.

 

First, a little history of popcorn ceilings

Popcorn ceilings, or acoustic ceiling treatments, were popularized post-war beginning in the 1950s. They can even be seen in some new construction today. These ceilings have an instantly recognizable “cottage cheese” texture.

Prior to the early 1980s, asbestos was an ingredient used in some textured popcorn ceilings.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring silicate mineral. The plentiful material is actually mined from the earth; it’s not man-made. The primary features are that it provides superior sound absorption and is an excellent fire retardant. For these reasons (and since it is abundant and affordable) home builders have used it in a variety of housing applications dating back thousands of years.

For most of the 20th century, asbestos was used in materials like linoleum floor tile, hot water pipe insulation, duct tape, exterior wall shingles, roof shingles, attic insulation, plaster patching compounds and Orangeburg sewer pipe. Until a few decades ago, it was common in residential ceiling texture applications.

Not all popcorn ceilings contain asbestos. Only homes built prior to the early 1980s are suspect. Of the ceilings that do contain the material, asbestos only makes up about 5% of the texturizing spray. Despite the low percentage content, asbestos needs to be treated with caution.

Officially, asbestos in the context of ceiling surface texture was banned by the EPA in 1978. This covered spray-applied surfacing materials that were not already addressed by an earlier 1973 ban on fireproofing sprays. It is reasonable to assume that some inventories of popcorn ceiling texture remained in circulation after the ban. As a result, homes built into the early 1980s should be considered to possibly be affected.

If you see a popcorn textured ceiling in a newer home built during the mid-1980s or later, there is no cause for alarm. You don’t have asbestos ceilings.

The spray-on application method of textured ceilings has remained popular for many reasons. It allows builders to coat ceilings quickly and efficiently, thus lowering costs. It also helps to obscure second-rate sheetrock drywall installation on ceilings. By contrast, flat ceilings take more time, labor and skill. Drywall skim coating errors are more visible in the sunlight on a flat surface.

 

What is the danger?

Asbestos-containing material is dangerous if it is torn, sanded, drilled, worn, scraped, sawed or generally mishandled. The asbestos fibers become “friable” and airborne. Breathing asbestos fibers has been linked to a type of lung and abdomen cancer called mesothelioma.

If you suspect that you have asbestos in your popcorn ceilings, home tests kits are available to confirm their content. You can order asbestos testing kits here.

Taking a sample to a local lab in Phoenix is also an option. Check with EMSL Analytical near 35th Ave. and Thomas Road. The address is 3356 W Catalina Dr., Phoenix, Arizona 85017. The lab can be reached at (602) 276-4344.

 

What if tests confirm the presence of asbestos?

If you have popcorn ceilings with confirmed asbestos content, it is best to leave them alone or simply paint them. Undisturbed asbestos content in ceiling textures don’t usually present a danger. In fact, the EPA recommends in its online asbestos guide, “…the best thing is to leave asbestos-containing material alone if it is in good condition.”

The EPA guide book on asbestos is available here.

Professional, certified removal is an option, but it can cost thousands of dollars. These services will use HEPA-filtered negative air machines, vacuums, and walls of poly sheeting to enclose the affected areas during removal. Always check referrals and sources of contractor certifications.

 

Summary

The message is to do your due diligence before jumping into a weekend project. Think first about getting an environmental lab test if your project involves disturbing old ductwork, cutting pipe wrap or removing the popcorn texture on your ceiling.

Are you buying an older home in a community like Sun City or Moon Valley where homes were built mid-century? Look for popcorn ceiling texture before making an offer, be aware of your inspection deadlines and speak up if potential asbestos-containing ceiling texture is a deal stopper for you.

 


Individuals involved in the rescue, recovery, and cleanup at the site of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York City are another group at risk of developing an asbestos-related disease. Because asbestos was used in the construction of the North Tower of the WTC, when the building was attacked, hundreds of tons of asbestos were released into the atmosphere. Those at greatest risk include firefighters, police officers, paramedics, construction workers, and volunteers who worked in the rubble at Ground Zero. – from the National Cancer Institute, Asbestos Fact Sheet available at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/asbestos/asbestos-fact-sheet