Solved! What Does Asbestos Look Like?
Understand how to visually identify asbestos in all its variations to avoid exposure to this dangerous building material.
Q. I am a homeowner, and I found some strange white fibers in the walls during a renovation. Is it asbestos? What does asbestos look like?
A: Asbestos is a group of naturally-occurring minerals that are resistant to heat, fire, and electricity. Because of their durability, they were once widely used in consumer products, from oven mitts to building insulation. However, in the 1970s, it was discovered that exposure to asbestos can cause serious cancers and other diseases like mesothelioma and asbestosis.
While asbestos is now heavily regulated in the U.S., it still lingers in some homes and older buildings. Homeowners with properties built decades ago may be wondering, what does asbestos look like? In short, it is blue, brown, or white in color, and often crumbles readily.
It’s important to understand how to identify asbestos and what to do if it is discovered in a home. Here’s what homeowners need to know.
Asbestos can be found in three variations: blue, brown, and white.
There are three types of asbestos that may be found in residential or commercial properties: crocidolite (blue), amosite (brown), and chrysotile (white).
Crocidolite asbestos, known as the most hazardous of all types of asbestos, was commonly used to insulate steam engines and in spray-on coatings, pipe insulation, plastics, and cement products. Its fibers are extremely thin and can be identified by their blue color.
Amosite is the second most commonly-used asbestos in the U.S. and poses a greater risk of cancer than other types of asbestos. Brown in color, this form of asbestos was frequently used in cement sheets and pipe insulation, as well as insulation boards, ceiling tiles, and thermal insulation products.
Chrysotile is the most commonly used asbestos. Found in roofs, ceilings, walls, and floors, buildings were once built with materials containing chrysotile. Additionally, this form of asbestos was often used in brake linings, gaskets and boiler seals, and insulation for pipes, ducts, and appliances. Chrysotile is white in color with a layered structure and curly fibers.
Non-friable asbestos does not crumble easily as a friable type does.
When identifying asbestos, you can evaluate how easy it crumbles to determine whether it is friable or non-friable. Non-friable asbestos-containing materials (ACMs), as opposed to a friable type, are actually quite difficult to crumble. It’s important to note these differences, as non-friable ACMs are still commonly found in production.
Because non-friable ACMs have a bonding agent that contains asbestos, there is a much lower risk of releasing these toxic minerals and posing danger to humans. However, they still remain a threat—especially if they end up getting crushed or broken, such as during a remodeling project.
Friable asbestos crumbles easily and falls apart under slight pressure.
Friable ACMs, which crumble more easily than a non-friable type, are now regulated due to their releasing of asbestos and associated risks. However, they can still be found today, as they were regularly added to materials prior to regulation.
Friable asbestos is often found in products like thermal insulation for pipes, insulation for water heaters, joint compounds, ceiling tiles, plasters, and wallboards. Since they can be crumbled, pulverized, or reduced to powder by hand pressure, they pose a great risk to those exposed.
It’s also important to note that non-friable ACMs can become friable if broken down or subjected to certain conditions.
Asbestos fibers are light and small, so they can float in the air for days.
While asbestos has some distinguishable features, an analysis of its appearance often requires the help of a microscope, which can show its color and shape. This is because asbestos can break down into such small particles that its fibers can’t be seen by the naked eye. In fact, the typical size of their fibers is 0.1 to 10 μm in length. Asbestos is only visible if it is in groups or clumps; otherwise, the individual fibers are too small to see without a microscope.
Because asbestos fibers are often microscopic, they can be airborne for days without being detected. This means they are easily inhaled into a person’s lungs, causing serious health issues.
As a raw fiber mineral, asbestos is usually soft to the touch, unless it has been used in making a compound material.
Asbestos, in its raw form, is typically a soft mineral. Chrysotile in particular, which accounts for about 98 percent of worldwide asbestos production in 1988, is made up of soft, flexible fibers. Chrysotile minerals tend to do less damage to body tissue than other types of asbestos; however, they’re still extremely dangerous and should be avoided.
What Should I Do If I Find Asbestos in My Home?
Because it was so commonly used just decades ago, asbestos is unfortunately not a rare find in many older homes or buildings. Should a homeowner find asbestos during a renovation, there are steps they can take to ensure their safety and minimize exposure during the asbestos abatement process.
Consult a professional to test for asbestos.
The first action to take after finding asbestos in your home is to call a professional. They’ll take a look and test the materials for the harmful minerals. Once everything is thoroughly evaluated, they’ll recommend an action plan to either remove or repair the asbestos.
Move forward with asbestos repair or removal.
Asbestos repair is typically the preferred method for handling asbestos since it involves the least amount of risk. A professional will conduct a repair either through encapsulation (coating with a sealant to prevent fibers from becoming airborne) or enclosure (covering with airtight material to prevent the release of fibers).
Asbestos removal is considered a last resort for most homeowners who find asbestos. The process of removing asbestos often causes fibers to become airborne within the home, which can pose serious health risks. However, trained professionals follow strict guidelines to ensure the safe removal of asbestos, including sealing off the area before disposing of it in a sealed dumpster or at an approved site.
Throughout the process, professionals wear protective gear and respirators, and the work area will have HEPA filters to clean the air. Additionally, these authorized individuals will handle cleanup and re-evaluate the space before homeowners return.
It’s important to note that DIY removal is not recommended and can be extremely dangerous. Homeowners who discover asbestos in their homes should consult a licensed asbestos abatement professional to address the issue. However, knowing how to visually identify asbestos is a good first step in making a home safer to live in.