Before scraping off a 'cottage cheese' ceiling, get it checked
Asbestos is often found in plaster and other building materials, which pose a risk if damaged or disturbed.
When we were kids, my brothers and I would play a game in which we jumped on our beds to see who could knock off the most plaster from the bedroom ceiling. Like many homes built more than 50 years ago, our home had ceilings of rough plaster, or "cottage cheese."
Today, many homeowners are scraping off this plaster to modernize their homes. It's difficult, messy and fatiguing. It may also be hazardous: In some homes, this plaster contains asbestos, a dangerous material that has been linked to cancer and other ailments.
If asbestos fibers are inhaled into the lungs, they can cause severe scarring and, in some cases, cancer. People exposed to large amounts of asbestos have an increased risk of developing lung cancer and mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer involving the thin membrane that surrounds the lungs and other internal organs. Exposure to asbestos has also been found to cause extensive scarring of the lung tissue, a condition known as asbestosis.
It typically takes prolonged exposure to high levels of asbestos fibers to develop lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis. Although most experts do not believe that prolonged exposure to small amounts -- and even large one-time exposure -- is likely to cause significant health problems, everyone agrees that minimizing exposure is prudent. "No safe level of exposure to asbestos has been established," says Patricia Maravilla, an environmental protection specialist with the Environmental Protection Agency's asbestos program.
Unfortunately, there is no way to escape asbestos completely. Asbestos fibers are released constantly into the air from natural deposits in soil or rock. The fibers are also released from the surface of manufactured asbestos products as they wear down. In rural areas, every cubic meter of outdoor air contains approximately 10 asbestos fibers; in urban areas like Los Angeles, the levels are estimated to be about 10 times higher.
However, it's indoor air that concerns most people. They worry about asbestos in their homes or want to know whether they should have it removed. "Just because you have it [in the home] doesn't necessarily mean that it poses a health risk," says Maravilla. It depends principally on the condition of the asbestos-containing material.
"Cottage cheese" ceilings are only one of many places that asbestos can be found in a home. It also may be contained in a wide variety of building materials, including roofing and siding shingles, floor tiles and insulation.
Although materials that are in good repair will not typically release fibers, they may do so if they are damaged or disturbed. That's why it's generally best not to disturb any material that contains asbestos and that is in good condition. (Be aware that you cannot tell whether a material contains asbestos simply by looking at it. If you are unsure, don't disturb it, or have a sample analyzed for asbestos). Listings of certified asbestos consultants are available at the California Department of Industrial Relations' Web site at www.dir.ca.gov, then click on "databases." Known asbestos-containing material should be inspected regularly for signs of damage.
If you discover a problem, call an asbestos professional to handle it. (A listing of registered asbestos contractors can be found on the above Web site.)
In some cases, it may only be necessary to repair damaged areas. A sealant, for example, can sometimes be used to encapsulate the fibers, or an airtight enclosure can be placed over or around them. In other cases, the best course is to remove the material entirely. Keep in mind, however, that disturbing asbestos poses the greatest risk of releasing fibers and may not be a safe course if the job is performed improperly. In fact, improper removal can create a hazard where none existed before.
Steps are being taken to help reduce exposure to asbestos, and asbestos consumption has dropped by 90% in the last 20 years. Recently, an EPA-funded panel recommended a ban on all production, distribution and imports of asbestos, and legislation to ban asbestos was introduced in the U.S. House and Senate last month.
"Cottage cheese" ceilings appear to be facing a similar fate. Just recently, the curds were removed from the ceiling of my childhood home. Before the ceiling could be stripped, however, samples were taken and tested for asbestos. My brothers and I breathed a collective sigh of relief when the report came back negative.
Dr. Valerie Ulene is a board-certified specialist in preventive medicine practicing in Los Angeles. Our Health appears the first Monday of the month.