How to Identify Asbestos

Updated March 21, 2017

Asbestos is a mineral with heat-resistant properties that has been used since the 1860s for insulation and to produce fire-retardant materials. It is a soft, flexible silicate which, when breathed, is highly toxic. Because it causes mesothelioma, a form of cancer, its use has been restricted by law. Not only that, but when a public building is found to contain asbestos dust producing features, the material must be removed following strict guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Learn when your building was built. If it was built prior to the 1970s, you should do further research. Find out if chysotile was used in the joint compound, vinyl floor tiles, roof tar, roof felts, or the shingles. Chrysotile contains asbestos. If any of these tiles is broken, cracked, or fragmenting they can be releasing asbestos dust particles into the air. Follow the guidelines of the Environmental Protection Agency to remove them.

Research to see whether any of the insulation boards, ceiling tiles, pipes, casings, thermal or chemical insulation contained amphibole, another product that used asbestos. Cement pipes made with asbestos were used as late as the 1980s according to the Mesothelioma Research Foundation of America. The same factors govern whether these items are producing toxic asbestos dust: they must be broken, cracked, fragmenting or otherwise breaking down. A trained building inspector will be able to determine if your building needs a more extensive evaluation.

Change the brake shoes, brake pads, and clutch parts in your car if it was manufactured before the mid 1990s because these parts all used to include asbestos. Again, as long as the parts are in good shape, not broken, cracked, or fragmenting, they do not release toxic, cancer producing asbestos dust into the air.

Use a polarised light microscope and a camera that can photograph microscopic images to check for asbestos fibres. They are less than one micron in diameter, much too small to be seen by the naked eye.

Things You'll Need

  • Polarised light microscope
  • Environmental Protection Agency guidelines for removal of asbestos
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About the Author

Lesley Barker, director of the Bolduc House Museum, authored the books "St. Louis Gateway Rail—The 1970s," published by Arcadia, and the "Eye Can Too! Read" series of vision-related e-books. Her articles have appeared in print and online since the 1980s. Barker holds a Bachelor of Arts in sociology from Washington University and a Master of Arts in Teaching from Webster University.