How To Spot Asbestos — And What To Do Next

Updated: Dec. 21, 2023

Asbestos is lurking everywhere in your workplace. Do you know what to look for?

Unless you’re lucky enough to work on new construction, tradespeople don’t always have the luxury of building a gleaming project from the slab up. Electricians, plumbers and pipefitters get used to decades of grime, and we build on the work of previous generations hiding in ceiling cavities and dark basements.

Some of that old stuff is fascinating; once I found dirty graffiti from the 1950s! Other times, it’s dangerous and not so funny, like stumbling upon asbestos.

That happened to me on a demolition project. We were all up on lifts, prying pipes off the ceiling. A hundred years of dust and grunge rained down around us, landing on our masks, in our hair and down our necks — it was disgusting, but it comes with the territory. Mostly, you just ignore it and dream of a hot shower.

Suddenly, the foreman yelled “STOP!” We did. He saw the telltale fibrous coating of asbestos and shut the job down until it could be verified and mitigated.

Asbestos is no joke. What if he hadn’t yelled? Would I have noticed, or known what to do? Would you? I talked to multiple experts to help you know what to look for, and how to protect yourself on the job.

How Harmful is Asbestos?

Very. Asbestos causes asbestosis, a chronic lung disease, and mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer, as well as multiple other organ and tissue cancers.

Breathing in or ingesting asbestos embeds the fibers in your body, scarring and irritating tissue. Most of the time, this happens at work. Today, approximately 1.3 million construction and general industry workers in the U.S. are at risk of asbestos exposure, according to The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com.

“In 1971, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA] began regulating asbestos in the workplace,” says Michelle Whitmer, an environmental toxin expert and writer at The Mesothelioma Center.

Unfortunately, there’s a long latency period associated with asbestos diseases. That means you may not become sick until many years after exposure.

And while asbestos isn’t banned in the U.S., regulations, lawsuits and pressure from advocacy groups have had an effect. “The death rate of asbestosis peaked in 1970 at 2.78 per million,” Whitmer says, “and dropped to 0.03 per million between 2005 and 2014.” Mesothelioma incidence crested in the 1990s and has since dropped by 46%.

What Does Asbestos Usually Look Like?

Asbestos Tunatura/Getty Images

It depends. Asbestos is the common name of six minerals, which start out as raw ores mined from the ground. Asbestos can be white, blue, green, brown or other colors.

Most construction workers will not encounter raw asbestos, but for decades miners were exposed. After refining, chrysotile (aka “white asbestos”) is the one workers will typically encounter on the job.

“Once processed, asbestos most commonly appears as a white, fluffy fiber,” Whitmer says. Unfortunately, lots of workers (and homeowners, for that matter) won’t see it in this form, either. Sometimes it’s easy to spot — say, asbestos pipe insulation — but not always.

“Asbestos fibers become nearly impossible to identify once mixed into products,” Whitmer says.

Because it’s hard to know what contains asbestos, it’s best to be aware of what asbestos is used for, and the year of your building’s construction.

Where Is Asbestos Commonly Found?

Bad news: Just about everywhere, especially in older industry buildings, according to Steve Leasure, vice president of operations for Rainbow Restoration.

In construction and manufacturing, asbestos was added to hundreds of products for its heat resistance and insulation properties. “It’s prudent to assume asbestos may be present in buildings constructed before the late 1970s,” Leasure says.

Here are some common uses for asbestos, but keep in mind this list is not exhaustive:

  • Pipe insulation;
  • Ceiling tiles and flooring;
  • Brake linings;
  • Boiler insulation;
  • Roofing shingles;
  • Cement and adhesives;
  • Fireproofing materials and textiles.

What Should You Do if You Find Asbestos?

It depends. Asbestos can’t become airborne if it isn’t chipped or cracked. If it won’t be disturbed in any way it’s OK to leave alone, according to Robert Weitz, certified master inspector and principal of RTK Environmental.

“Left undisturbed, asbestos is generally safe,” Weitz says. “If it is exposed or damaged, it can be very harmful.”

That’s why my foreman shut down the job — ripping asbestos-covered pipes off the ceiling would definitely send the fibers flying. But remember: Even though your on-the-job experience, or the building’s age, may point to asbestos being present, the only way to really know is to test it. Tell your boss. Or if you’re the boss, bring in an asbestos testing company to verify.

Weitz says when contacting companies, choose carefully. “Test for asbestos with an independent company that only performs testing, so there is no conflict of interest,” Weitz says. (You don’t want the testing company selling you removal services as well.) When you know you have asbestos, contact a certified asbestos removal contractor separately.

Once it’s removed, Weitz recommends doing “clearance testing” to make 100% sure there’s no asbestos remaining.