How to Identify and Remove Asbestos Ceiling Tiles

Asbestos was one of the most common materials used to manufacture ceiling tiles during the mid-20th Century. Asbestos is a material that occurs naturally in the form of silicate minerals. These minerals are very thin and fibrous. Each fiber of asbestos that is visible to human eyes is comprised of millions of fibrils that are microscopic in size and can be released into the air when there is abrasion or other processes. Naturally occurring asbestos can be brown, blue, green or white in color.

Asbestos has been mined for many hundreds of years. Its fire-resistant properties made it a popular material for many centuries. The ancient Greeks used asbestos for many purposes, including lamp wicks. The ancient Egyptians also knew of asbestos and used it to produce many different fabrics. One legend claims that King Charlemagne’s tablecloth was made of asbestos and that he used to clean it by throwing it onto an open fire.

There was however a much larger boom in the mining of asbestos at the end of the 19th century when asbestos was being used by builders and manufacturers due its desirable characteristics, which include: good sound absorption, excellent tensile strength, affordability as a raw material and its amazing resistance to electricity, heat and fire. Asbestos fibers are virtually indestructible and it is one of the best fire insulating materials in the world.

How to Identify Asbestos Ceiling Tiles

Asbestos has been used in building insulation materials and for insulating hotplate wiring, piping and more commonly in floor tiles and ceiling tiles. It is quite common for older homes and buildings to have ceiling tiles that are made of asbestos.

Asbestos was a cheap fire-resistant product and because of this it was a common material in the construction of many building materials (including ceiling tiles) during from the early 1940s to the 1980s. It’s crucial that you be on the lookout for asbestos in older buildings. Breathing in even a very small quantity of asbestos fibers can cause irreversible lung damage.

Due to its superior heat resistant and fire-resistant properties, asbestos was very popular in the fabrication of tile adhesives, ceiling tiles, duct wrap, dry wall and even ceiling texture sprays.  Asbestos ceiling tiles were commonly used in schools, universities, warehouses, hospitals and colleges during this era. In fact, most buildings constructed or renovated prior to the 1980s have some asbestos in them. Asbestos ceiling tiles reached the height of their popularity from the 1950s to the 1980s and were a standard choice for office ceilings, kitchen ceilings in homes and even in the remodeling of basement areas in order to cover up unsightly duct work.

When left undisturbed, asbestos ceiling tiles may not always be harmful. But when asbestos containing materials are moved or disturbed in any way, they can release toxic asbestos fibers into the air. You cannot see these asbestos fibers with the naked eye, but they can cause asbestosis, mesothelioma, and other irreversible lung diseases.

Maritime workers and construction workers who worked with asbestos materials are most at risk of contracting asbestosis or cancer, but thousands of other employees and homeowners have been exposed to asbestos ceiling tiles in their homes, schools, universities and/or workplaces without being aware of the fact.

Here are some brands of ceiling tiles that may potentially contain asbestos:

  • Affa Tile Company
  • Celotex
  • Owens Corning Fiberglass
  • BPB
  • Flintkote
  • National Gypsum
  • Gold Bond
  • US Gypsum
  • Gyptone

This list is not exhaustive. Many other brands of ceiling tiles may contain asbestos.

It’s often difficult to determine the brand of ceiling tile in older buildings. Also, because many brands of ceiling tiles have a similar look and size, it can often be difficult to accurately identify whether ceiling tiles contains asbestos or not. Asbestos was used in many different styles of ceiling tiles in suspended ceilings and was a very common material in the tile insulation as well as the paper on the underside of tiles. Additionally, asbestos was used in the adhesive materials which bound the sections of the tiles together.

As a general rule of thumb, if you encounter ceiling tiles in an older building that have a similar appearance to the photos below of asbestos ceiling tiles, you should get them tested immediately. It’s absolutely crucial that any older building be tested before any renovation or demolition is started. For a product to be considered an “asbestos containing material” (ACM) according to OSHA’s guidelines, that the material contain a minimum of 1% asbestos.

If you have any doubt whatsoever about whether ceiling tiles at your home, workplace or elsewhere contains asbestos, you should contact a specialized asbestos inspection company immediately and have the area thoroughly tested. The asbestos fibers in ceiling tiles can look extremely similar cellulose, which is the most common material ceiling tiles are produced with. Only a test from an asbestos testing lab will be able to determine whether or not ceiling tiles contain asbestos.

Homeowners and building owners should also be on the lookout for other products that may contain asbestos. Asbestos has been used in the manufacture of more than 3,000 products, from paint to water pipes to floor tiles to boiler insulation. Asbestos linoleum was also a common household construction and renovation product, and it’s also common to find asbestos plaster in older buildings, as well as asbestos pipe insulation and asbestos roof tiles.

Asbestos Identification

Asbestos ceiling products were first used during the Middle Ages; the earliest known use of asbestos ceiling tiles is in Cleeve Abbey in England. During the 1700s and 1800s there were a few instances of asbestos being used in ceiling plaster work, but by far the most asbestos ceiling tiles were produced in the mid 20th Century.

Identifying asbestos can be difficult because asbestos ceiling products often look similar to ceiling tiles made without asbestos. Many ceiling tiles were produced with mineral woods, cellulose and starch and then painted. These products often have very similar appearances.

Due to the large number and variety of different ceiling tiles produced, it simply isn’t possible to provide a comprehensive visual database of ceiling tiles that contain asbestos. A visual inspection isn’t enough – only a professional material and atmosphere test should be considered adequate. Due to the high chance of contracting asbestosis and/or mesothelioma, it’s always best to play it safe with any construction or building materials you think may contain asbestos. Never disturb any ceiling tiles until you have positive proof that they do not contain any asbestos.

The only safe option is to have a sample of any product you think contains asbestos tested by an asbestos testing lab. This usually costs between $40 and $60 and could potentially save your life and the lives of anyone else who comes into contact with the ceiling tiles.

The Health Hazards of Asbestos

Asbestos containing materials present a very serious health hazard. If you live or work in an older building, it’s essential that you know whether that building contains any asbestos products, especially if you are planning to renovate. The microscopic asbestos fibers in ceiling tiles usually only get released into the atmosphere if the tiles are disturbed or moved. These microscopic particles are virtually indestructible and don’t evaporate or dissolve into the air. Breathing in just a small number of these asbestos fibers can cause asbestosis or mesothelioma.

Asbestosis is a chronic non-cancerous lung disease and mesothelioma is a rare form of lung cancer. Both conditions are usually caused by breathing in asbestos fibers; both are not curable and usually result in death. More than 6,000 people died in the US in 2013 from asbestos related diseases. More than half a million people in the US have died from asbestos-related diseases in the past 100 years. The World Health Organization estimates that asbestos is the number one cause of job-related cancer. Despite this, asbestos is still legal in the United States and is still used in manufacturing many products each year, including brake pads, gaskets and asbestos diaphragms used in the chlorine industry.

Even in very small doses, breathing in asbestos fibers can permanently scar your lungs. Many workers who were in contact with asbestos don’t develop symptoms until 20, 30 or 40 years after exposure. Because asbestos fibers are microscopic and resistant to extreme heat and chemicals, using an asbestos mask won’t provide adequate protection.

If your company has asbestos containing materials on its premises, OSHA requires that all employees who are likely to come into contact with the material undergo a 2-hour asbestos awareness training course.

Asbestos Removal

If you have asbestos ceiling tiles in your home or business, you should definitely not try remove them yourself. If you are not sure if there is asbestos in your ceiling tiles, it’s best to seal the area off and avoid going into that room until they have been tested.

Make sure that the area remains sealed off and clearly labeled so that no one can access the area until you have the test results back. Health and safety must be the number one priority for every individual and organization at all times, and the potential risks of asbestos should never be ignored. When in doubt, always play it safe.

If the test shows that there is asbestos present, then you must either: completely seal the entire area off so no one can access it even by accident or have a professional contractor who specializes in handling the material remove it safely. Because asbestos fibers can be released into the atmosphere when disturbed, in many cases it is much safer to leave the area undisturbed than to try to remove the asbestos containing material.

You can find specialist asbestos removal companies in most major cities. These companies will have the necessary equipment and training to remove asbestos products from your property.