How can you tell if there is asbestos in popcorn ceilings?

For much of the 20th century, ‘popcorn ceilings’ – ceilings that had an uneven texture, reminiscent of popcorn or cottage cheese – were ubiquitous in British homes.

Such ceilings survive in many homes across the UK today, in such areas as entrance hallways and bedrooms.

Sadly, many of these ceilings also contain a potentially lethal ingredient: asbestos, which was used to help bolster durability and fire resistance, during a time before the material’s dangers to human health became widely known.

The breathing-in of asbestos fibres is associated with the later development of serious illnesses such as mesothelioma, which is almost always fatal.

So, it really is crucial to be vigilant to the potential existence of popcorn ceilings in your domestic or commercial property, and to guard against the risks that they might represent.

asbestos in popcorn ceilings

What is a popcorn ceiling, and what does it look like?

If you have popcorn ceilings in your home or commercial building, you probably already instinctively know what the term refers to. While smooth ceilings are much more ‘in fashion’ in new-build homes today, there was a time when ceilings would often be given more textured treatments, which helped hide imperfections.

Popcorn ceilings live up to their name in the sense of having a bumpy surface that resembles popcorn or cottage cheese. They tend to be white or cream in colour.

How to tell if there is asbestos in popcorn ceilings

Although the above characteristics are useful to know, they won’t tell you whether your popcorn ceiling contains asbestos. The fact is, a textured ceiling with asbestos will look much the same as a textured ceiling that doesn’t contain such possibly extremely harmful fibres.

This means you are unlikely to know for sure whether your own home’s popcorn ceilings contain asbestos unless there is any scope for a sample to be collected and tested by an accredited laboratory.

But of course, even the process of trying to collect any such sample can be dangerous. So, we would urge you to contact an asbestos professional to discuss your situation and concerns before taking any action.

What should I do if a popcorn ceiling has asbestos?

The sad reality is that with the use of asbestos in construction having only been definitively banned in the UK at the end of the 20th century, if your home or other building was constructed prior to 2000, there is a good chance that any popcorn ceilings will, indeed, contain asbestos.

On one hand, any asbestos-containing popcorn ceilings in your building are likely to be safe if they are left undisturbed. But on the other hand, if such ceilings are damaged or disturbed in some way, this can result in asbestos fibres being released into the air, with all the associated health risks.

For that reason, you ought to take care around such ceilings regardless. Once you are aware of the possibility of asbestos, you should adopt such hopefully ‘common-sense’ measures as not scraping the ceiling or using any nails or screws in such ceilings.

Nor should you have bunk beds in a room where popcorn ceilings are present, given the risk of the person in the top bed accidentally touching and potentially disturbing the ceiling surface.

Ultimately, then, even if you are sure that your popcorn ceiling does indeed contain asbestos, your subsequent course of action is likely to depend on the probability of the ceiling being disturbed or damaged at any point in the years to come.

You might imagine that your own building’s popcorn ceilings are unlikely to be disturbed unless you carry out work in the property that would obviously present this risk. However, that might not be quite true; natural disasters, or even just normal wear and tear, can also lead to asbestos ceiling disturbance.

Spray-on ceiling treatments can also become more brittle over the years, further heightening the risk. So, if one of the aforementioned events happens or if you see that such ceilings in your building show visible damage, it is crucial to act.

Seek advice from an asbestos professional today, and they will be able to determine whether the ceiling in your property would be best left ‘in situ’ and be covered or protected, or whether it would be a better decision to have the ceiling removed by specialist asbestos removal contractors.

What are the options to remove a popcorn ceiling?

The overall risk of a given asbestos popcorn ceiling releasing asbestos fibres and posing a risk to human health is still low, provided that it is well-maintained.

However, if you feel uncomfortable with the continued presence of a popcorn ceiling in your building, or conclude that the risks presented by your premises’ popcorn ceiling are too great, there are options for removing it or covering it up.

Those options could include:

Scraping a popcorn ceiling

While this is a common method for removing popcorn ceilings in general, it is important to emphasise that this method should only be used if asbestos is not present in the ceiling. After all, literally scraping a ceiling is a messy process, and presents a high risk of releasing toxic asbestos fibres if this dangerous material is contained within the ceiling.

Even if it has already been established that your popcorn ceiling does not contain asbestos, you should still follow all relevant and responsible safety measures.

Covering up with drywall

For popcorn ceilings that are found to obtain asbestos, or for which asbestos is strongly suspected, we would recommend this method over scraping. Strictly speaking, this method doesn’t involve the popcorn ceiling being removed at all; instead, the ceiling is encapsulated to ward off the risk of the popcorn ceiling being damaged and asbestos fibres becoming airborne.

This process involves affixing ceiling-grade gypsum board right over the current asbestos ceiling, followed by mudding and taping. Although you can technically do this job on a ‘DIY’ basis, you might decide to entrust professionals with the task, so that you can be sure of the smoothest possible finish.

Skim coating on a new design

Another remedy that property owners can relatively easily do themselves, is skim coating a new design onto the popcorn ceiling.

It entails cleaning and prepping the existing substrate using quick-set drywall mud, followed by the application of a bonding agent such as joint compound, and finally using a trowel or knife to apply a finish compound. The result is a new textured design, which ensures the original popcorn ceiling is not the first point of potential contact for day-to-day occupants and users of the building.

Do you have any other questions or concerns in relation to the asbestos risk that may be presented by your organisation’s buildings or activities? If so, our team at Oracle Solutions would be pleased to help, and to provide you with a free and fast asbestos quote.