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Knowledge Base » Health and Safety » How to Identify Asbestos | What does it look like?

How to Identify Asbestos | What does it look like?

Last updated on 20th December 2023

It is important you know how to identify asbestos. An estimated 13 people die from conditions linked to asbestos exposure in the U.K. every day. This is more than twice the number of people who lose their lives in road traffic accidents.

Initially, concerns around the safety of asbestos were raised towards the end of the 19th century. Asbestosis, a severe inflammatory condition that impacts the lungs, causing severe coughing, lung damage, and shortness of breath, was first described in medical texts during the 1920s. In the mid-1950s, one of the first links between asbestos and lung cancer was published. However, it wasn’t until 1999 when a full-ban on the use of asbestos products was enforced.

The U.K. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has said:

“Asbestos can be found in any residential or industrial building built or refurbished before 2000. It’s estimated that over 50% of U.K. homes contain asbestos, which can cause fatalities if disturbed.”

Today, asbestos is still being used in large quantities by the construction industry in parts of South America, Asia, and Eastern Europe, with controlled use permitted in North America and Canada. In this five-minute guide, We’ll explain what asbestos is, how to spot signs of asbestos and the link between asbestos and older buildings. Next, we’ll discuss the difference between friable and non-friable asbestos, how to carry out asbestos tests, and the steps you should take if you fear you have been exposed to asbestos. Finally, we’ll talk about how asbestos is removed, before answering some frequently asked questions.

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a mineral that occurs naturally in specific types of rock throughout the world. Due to its durability, fire-resistance, and relatively low cost, it has been used in the manufacture of thousands of products, particularly building materials. In the mid-20th century, asbestos was one of the most common building materials in use throughout most of the U.K.

Unfortunately, it was later revealed that asbestos poses serious respiratory health hazards to people who are exposed to even a small amount of airborne fibres. These fibres can lead to conditions such as asbestosis, non-cancerous lung disease, and mesothelioma (lung cancer). Each of these conditions is incurable, eventually leading to death.

Over in the U.S., Asbestos is directly linked to over 6,000 deaths every year and is estimated to have killed over half a million people. Despite these statistics, asbestos use is still legal in the states, with 30 million tonnes of the material used every year.

Any materials that contain asbestos pose a danger to human health. This is because, if they are disturbed or damaged, they release asbestos fibres into the air. Although not everybody that is exposed to asbestos will develop a severe condition, the risks are significant.

In the majority of cases, lung cancer and asbestosis take between 10-40 years to develop after initial exposure to asbestos occurs. The more frequently and longer a person is exposed to asbestos, the higher the risk of developing severe health problems.

Asbestos removal

How to Spot the Signs of Asbestos

It’s estimated that over 500,000 structures still contain asbestos throughout the U.K. Therefore, anybody that is aware of the possibility of asbestos within a structure must be vigilant and safeguard against exposure.

Some of the most common signs of asbestos include:

The Age of a Building

Up until 1985, all types of asbestos could still be legally used in the U.K. They were popular and actively used to create appliances and buildings all over the country. Asbestos could be found in insulation, roofing materials, boilers, housing pipes, and even hairdryers. The HSE has guessed that all buildings constructed before the beginning of the 21st century may contain asbestos.

Asbestos was once used in the construction of everything, ranging from schools to industrial factories. For this reason, workers must be cautious when being exposed to older buildings. Tradespeople such as electricians, builder, and plumbers face considerable risk when working in old buildings. This is because any disruptions can lead to asbestos exposure.

Asbestos was commonly used in buildings in places like:

Attic insulation was frequently make using asbestos between the 1920s and the 1980s. Therefore, if your attic contains insulated materials that you suspect were installed during this period, we recommend having the materials asbestos tested before handling them.

Interior Wall Paint

Asbestos was a popular ingredient in wall paints up until the 1990s.


In the past, asbestos ceilings were a common feature of many homes in the form of spray-on paint of ceiling tiles.

Wood Stoves and Fireplaces

Any fire-resistant materials present in older houses is likely to contain asbestos. Therefore, we recommend testing paper or cement sheets found on fireplace interiors or wooden stoves.

Window Putty

It wasn’t uncommon to produce fire-resistant window putty using asbestos materials.


Asbestos was used as part of gaskets, clutches, and brake pad production. For this reason, OSHA has recommended taking precautionary measures before replacing any brake pads.

Garden Sheds and Garages

In older garages and sheds, asbestos roof panels and roof tiles are a common feature.


The majority of drywall areas in homes are asbestos-free unless they have been fire-protection rated. Asbestos drywall was more prevalent in commercial buildings. That said, if your house was renovated prior to 1980, the drywall edging or texture compound might contain asbestos.

Floor Tiles and Carpet Underlay

Occasionally, carpet underlay is found to contain asbestos. This includes vinyl floor tiling and floor tile fixing glue.

Home Siding

In the past, siding shingles and siding materials were sometimes reinforced using asbestos to bolster their strength.

Water Heaters

Water heater insulation os sometimes found to contain asbestos. This is especially true of any insulating blankets or cloths.

Air Conditioning or Heating Ducts

Insulation was one of the most popular uses for asbestos. Therefore, in older buildings, the A.C. and heating systems may contain asbestos.

Asbestos Cement Pipes

Gas and sewage pipes were sometimes built with asbestos. These are particularly dangerous as they deteriorate with time and asbestos fibres can be released into the pipelines.

Boiler and Pipe Insulation

Piping systems that feed furnaces and boilers sometimes contain asbestos, with some boilers being coated in asbestos for insulation. If you think that you may have asbestos in your home or work building, we recommend that you purchase a home testing kit or hire a qualified professional to run tests. It really could save lives if you identify and remove all hazardous materials containing asbestos

Alternatively, There are several asbestos testing kits available on the market. The manufacturer of these kits provides instructions to show how homeowners can safely extract some samples for a lab to test. These samples are sent back to the manufacturer, and a specialist testing laboratory will test them and provide results within a few weeks.

Asbestos identified in copper boiler pipes

Asbestos Friability

Friability is the term used to describe how likely asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) are to break apart, chip, or crumble under external pressure. ACMs that are more likely to deteriorate, releasing inhalable asbestos fibres, are classed as ‘friable’. The majority of these materials can easily crumble or be reduced to powder when touched.

Friable Asbestos Explained

Friable asbestos is asbestos that is weak, prone to damage, or can be broken down easily. Once these types of asbestos become damaged or broken, inhalable fibres will be released into the air, posing a health hazard to animals and humans within the vicinity. To be classed as friable, asbestos must contain over 1% asbestos by weight and must be fragile enough to damage by hand.

Non-friable Asbestos Explained

Non-friable asbestos is asbestos that is more durable and resistant to abrasion or damage. Therefore, non-friable materials are less likely to break down, releasing dangerous fibres into the air. Non-friable asbestos cannot be easily disturbed or damaged by human hand.

How to Spot Non-Friable Asbestos

Non-friable asbestos mostly refers to compounds that only contain a tiny proportion of asbestos. These materials won’t crumble easily, and therefore can be considered as low risk. In these instances, asbestos was likely added to the material to increase durability and improve safety at the time of construction. An example of non-friable asbestos would be cement. Up until the late 1990s, asbestos was added to cement to strengthen and reinforce the existing materials. Roughly, 10-15% of the cement would contain asbestos fibres.

Occasionally, asbestos cement products such as roofing tiles or animal pens are branded with the letters ACM or A.C., as an indicator that they contain asbestos. Although, only a small percentage of these materials were marked, so people should still wear protective materials when dealing with older structures suspected of containing asbestos. In most cases, cement containing asbestos is very durable. However, it must be removed by a professional if it begins crumbling. Anybody that handles this crumbling material must be certified with appropriate training and be equipped with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to reduce their chance of asbestos exposure.

How to Identify Asbestos

It can be challenging to identify asbestos by visual analysis or comparing an area that you suspect to an online example. Therefore, if you suspect that a part of your home contains asbestos, you must send away a sample of the material to a certified asbestos testing lab.

This is the most effective way to receive 100% verification of the presence of asbestos on your property. Commercial properties are legally required to undertake a complete asbestos audit, which includes lab tests on all materials suspected to contain the substance. These tests will also determine whether the asbestos present is friable or non-friable, ultimately providing information that helps determine the risk-level posed by different building materials.

How Specialist Laboratories Identify Asbestos

To 100% confirm or deny the presence of asbestos, material samples should be forwarded to a specialist laboratory. Certified asbestos testing labs use a form of transmission electron microscopy to reveal and identify and kind of asbestos fibres that are present within a sample.

In accordance with the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act 1986 (AHERA), any labs that work in asbestos testing must adhere to the National Institue of Standards and Technology (NIST) requirements of they are to remain certified with the Environmental Protection Agency. Click here to view a full NIST accredited directory.

Asbestos being tested in a lab

What to do if you think you have been exposed asbestos

If you discover that an area of your home contains asbestos, there are several steps that you can take to make sure that you remain safe.

Firstly, you’ll have to pinpoint the exact location of the asbestos and work out whether the materials have been damaged. As we mentioned earlier, damaged asbestos poses a much more significant risk compared to undamaged materials. Friable asbestos is considered much more dangerous than non-friable asbestos as it breaks into small pieces and can easily release dangerous fibres into the air. Non-friable asbestos stands less chance of causing harm as strong materials often surround the small asbestos particles. Therefore, fibres will only be released if these materials are cracked or damaged.

If you identify non-friable asbestos that is undamaged, there is probably no immediate danger present. In these cases, you may want to consider asbestos encapsulation, which works to contain materials and prevent the release of any asbestos fibres. During the encapsulation process, the exposed asbestos is sealed, preventing all airflow to and from the area, and minimising any exposure risks. However, if you find non-friable forms of asbestos that have deteriorated or become damaged in any way, we recommend calling a professional asbestos removal company immediately.

Friable asbestos that is undisturbed and undamaged is unlikely to release any dangerous fibres into the air, but should still be removed wherever possible. In older buildings, where removal is impossible, the area must be sealed off in its entirety. Once any friable asbestos has been confirmed, yourself and all members of your family must stay away from the area until al the asbestos has been professionally removed. Asbestos removal contractors have all the necessary training and equipment to remove these materials safely and efficiently.

How is Asbestos Removed?

When you hire a professional asbestos removal company, they use a HEPA vacuum, specialised equipment, and wet mopping techniques to eliminate all asbestos materials present. You’ll notice that they wear specialised PPE and respirators throughout the removal process. So severe is the risk of cross-contamination; these materials are destroyed after each use.

Never take the removal of asbestos into your own hands and try to hoover broken asbestos materials or sweep them using a dustpan and brush. As soon as you disturb any materials, asbestos fibres will be released into the air, posing a hazard to the health of you and your family.

We hope you found all the information on identifying and removing asbestos useful in this guide. Please don’t forget, asbestos is a potentially deadly material. Now that you know the difference between friable and non-friable asbestos, always proceed with caution and contact professionals to carry out safety inspections and asbestos removal procedures.

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About the author

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Marcel Deer

Marcel qualified as a journalist from Liverpool John Moore's University in 2009. After working in PR and digital marketing for five years, he spent two years working as a social media consultant. Since then, he's worked from 15 countries as a remote content writing/marketing expert.

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