Is asbestos hiding in your popcorn ceiling?

Do you have one of those popcorn ceilings that were so popular from the 60s to the mid 80s? You know, those sprayed on, whitish, bumpy, cottage-cheesy ceilings that were quick to apply, useful at covering up a bad sheetrock job, looked presentable when new, and were a mess to clean? You do? My sympathies.

If you have one of these ceilings you may have wondered if you can paint it or sand off the high spots of the texture or maybe just do away with the whole popcorn-y thing altogether. Water spots are hard to deal with, dust collects in the textured crevices, and the whole thing is less than satisfactory. Sound familiar?

If this is you- STOP! Don't do anything with that ceiling until you have it tested. Depending on the age of your ceiling, it's quite possible that it contains asbestos. For many years, before the United States Department of Health and Human Services determined that asbestos is a known carcinogen, manufacturers used asbestos to make many different products, including the stuff of popcorn ceilings. If the ceiling is damaged- whether it's water damage, tears, dents, abrasions from sanding, drilling or cutting- fibers that come from the breakdown of the product are released into the air and then inhaled. Generally speaking, material in good condition will not release asbestos fibers. There is no danger unless fibers are released and inhaled into the lungs.

When inhaled, even in small amounts, asbestos fibers can cause a range of severe diseases including lung cancer, asbestosis (an irreversible scarring of the lungs similar to emphysema), and mesothelioma (a cancer of the chest and abdominal linings which causes tumors which grow, spread rapidly and are 100% fatal). Exposure to asbestos may also increase the risk of other cancers such as those of the larynx (throat) and of the gastrointestinal tract (stomach). The risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma increases with the number of fibers inhaled. The symptoms of these diseases do not usually appear until about 20 to 30 years after the first exposure to asbestos.

If you have the slightest doubt or concern about the material in your ceilings, GET IT TESTED!! You can arrange for a professional to remove a sliver of the ceiling for testing or you can purchase a do-it-yourself kit and remove a tiny sample to be sent to a testing laboratory. If you choose the DIY kit, be extra careful to follow the safety guidelines. Within anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks, you'll know just what hangs over your head.

If your ceiling receives a clean bill of health, breathe a deep sigh of relief and let's get back to dealing with ugly. Popcorn ceilings can be painted with the right kind of paint and roller, which will probably make them harder to remove if you later decide that's what you really want to do. Or you can deal with it now- just realize that you've likely never encountered a mess like the mess of removing a popcorn ceiling.

First, remove everything possible from the room. Cover the floor entirely with plastic sheeting, making sure to run the sheeting up the walls a couple of feet- tape it with painter's tape. Tape more plastic sheeting to the walls, letting it hang from the ceiling down over the plastic taped at the bottom of the wall. Now you need to use a mister to wet sections of the ceiling with water. Let it soak in and then use a wide blade to scrape the gunk off the ceiling. It's going to land on the floor, after it lands on you, so you might want to think about some kind of protective gear for yourself. Wet, scrape, wet, scrape until you get it done. Then you'll need to deal with whatever the popcorn ceiling was covering up.

Considering maybe just sanding off the high points and calling it a day? That could work, but you'll probably have to paint after you've cleaned up a few buckets of sanding dust and debris. Still messy, but dry messy instead of wet messy.

It all comes down to how much tolerance you have for messes and how much work you feel like doing. Kinda explains why some of us have popcorn ceilings when we don't really like them.