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What Does Asbestos Look Like?

With the health risks associated with asbestos fibers, many people ask the question, “What does asbestos look like?”  Unfortunately, the appearance of the mineral is usually altered so much during processing that simple visual identification is difficult, if not impossible.

What Natural Asbestos Fibers Look like

The term asbestos actually refers to a group of six different silicate minerals.  All six of the minerals share a distinctive, fibrous crystalline structure.  The long, thin crystals are referred to as asbestiform in nature, meaning that they are flexible and exhibit a high tensile strength.  These qualities, along with fire resistance,  are the very reasons that use of the fiber was so common before it became widely known that it causes the deadly lung cancer mesothelioma.

What Does Asbestos Look Like?The fibers in naturally occurring  asbestos specimens may be aligned and tightly clustered, giving an appearance similar to animal fur (such as the example in the  photo to the right).  The fibers might be arranged more randomly, giving them a light, fuzzy appearance.  While most people immediately associate a bright white coloration with asbestos, various shades of brown and blue are also common.

After processing, asbestos looks like a thin, soft fiber.  The appearance may be similar to that of silk or a shiny synthetic fiber.  Only a few finished products retain this look, however.  Rope seals for boilers and furnace doors, as well as cloth woven from asbestos are a few such products.  Unfortunately, both are virtually identical in appearance to their fiberglass counterparts, making differentiation extremely difficult if the item is not labeled.  When in doubt, always ere on the side of caution and be very careful with any material that even remotely looks like asbestos .

Appearance in Finished Materials

Describing what asbestos looks like in finished products and building materials is much more difficult.  It becomes extremely difficult to identify asbestos through visual inspection alone once it has been added to most construction materials.  The fibers are usually entrained in some kind of substrate material, masking their normal appearance.  Even in cases where the fibers are exposed, determining whether or not they are actually asbestos is often impossible without examining them under a high-power microscope.  Asbestos fibers in drywall, for example, will have a very similar appearance to the cellulose or fiberglass fibers that manufacturers now use instead.  Likewise, asbestos insulation around pipes can outwardly look very similar to benign fiberglass insulation.

One of the very few building materials that is almost guaranteed to contain asbestos is a “popcorn” ceiling texture.  Popular from the 1950s until the early 80s, the material had become so synonymous with the hazardous fibers and lung disease that it fell almost completely out of use. Even though other, safer materials can now be used to create similar treatments, acoustic ceilings simply had too much stigma attached to them to remain popular.

The problem of identifying materials containing asbestos is compounded further by the sheer variety of materials found in an average house that were manufactured with the fibers at some point over the last century.  The construction industry incorporated the stuff into floor tiles, roof shingles, insulation, fire barriers, drywall, linoleum, seals, heat shields, and the list goes on.  While a lot of those products have been removed over the years, there are still some contaminated materials out there.

Properly identifying materials that contain asbestos is vital to prevent accidental exposure.  Because identification by visual inspection alone is so difficult and inconsistent, getting professional testing done on a sample of any questionable material is important for your safety.  Always be careful with materials of unknown age, origin, or composition when you begin to do remodeling work inside your home, and always contact a qualified asbestos removal company if you find that you do have any contaminated materials to deal with.