What Is Asbestos?

Paul Pogue
Written by Paul Pogue
Updated March 15, 2016
Asbestos piece
Asbestos in the home poses no danger, unless it's disturbed and released into the air. (Photo courtesy of Connecticut Department of Health)

You may find asbestos in acoustic ceiling tiles, roofing materials, vinyl floor tiles, pipe insulation and more.

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Asbestos is a naturally occurring, flame-retardant mineral that’s still mined in a few places around the world. Due to its strength and heat resistance, asbestos was used in a wide variety of home construction purposes for many decades.

Asbestos is still used in the United States, mostly in roofing and brakes, though vastly less than its peak in the 1970s. Very few homes built in the past 20 years contain any asbestos at all. But because asbestos was used in so many applications, no exact numbers exist as to how many homes contain the cancer-causing material.

One of the most common asbestos products used in home building is vermiculite attic insulation, which poses a significant danger if disturbed. You may also find asbestos in acoustic ceiling tiles, cement roofing, roofing felt, roof shingles, vinyl and rubber floor tiles, in the backing compound used to install floor tiles, pipe insulation and more.

In addition, furnace ducts and hot water tanks may be insulated using asbestos blankets or asbestos paper that often becomes brittle over time. Textured paints, drywalling patching compounds and furnace door gaskets are other sources of asbestos. Even stove top pads, ironing board covers and hairdryers may contain small amounts.

Asbestos comes in several types, including chrysotile, amosite, tremolite and actinolite. By mixing asbestos with common construction products, companies increased fire resistance with a minimum of cost.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a ban on nearly all usage of asbestos in 1989, but federal courts overturned the ban two years later after a legal challenge from the asbestos industry. Today, regulation of asbestos varies widely by state and local municipality, and some experts say those regulations are inconsistently enforced.

— Additional reporting by Doug Bonderud, Angie's List Contributor

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