We know today that asbestos is incredibly dangerous, capable of causing severe respiratory illness, mesothelioma, and a half-dozen different cancers. However, asbestos was once an all-important material in American industry. Renowned for its strength, resiliency, and fire-resistant properties, asbestos was used in the manufacture of everything from automotive parts to wall insulation and vinyl floor tiles. 

While the Environmental Protection Agency banned most asbestos products in 1989, many 20th century homes remain contaminated. 

A Brief History of Asbestos in Home Construction 

People have used asbestos products for thousands of years; historians believe that even the ancient Egyptians would wrap the bodies of deceased pharaohs in asbestos-based linen, which would protect the mummies from rapid decomposition. 

While people have worked with asbestos for thousands of years, this naturally occurring mineral was extensively mined during and after the Industrial Revolution. In the United States, Australia, and Europe, demand for asbestos products boomed in the 20th century. Home construction contractors used inexpensive, heat-resistant asbestos as a fireproofing material, an adhesive, and insulator. 

When the federal government finally decided to ban asbestos in 1989, it conducted a survey of asbestos contamination in Philadelphia homes. The Consumer Product Safety Commission found that most buildings constructed between the 1920s and mid-1970s had detectable levels of asbestos.1

In fact, C.P.S.C. investigators found asbestos in 20% of public buildings and nearly 60% of apartment buildings and homes. Much of this asbestos was considered “friable.” 

Friable asbestos is asbestos that is damaged or degraded, capable of crumbling into small particles that can become airborne and present a significant health hazard.

Would a House Built in the 1920s Have Asbestos? 

Most homes constructed before 1980 contain asbestos. 

If you lived in a home built in the 1920s or 1930s, there is a significant chance you have asbestos in different rooms, structures, and features. Contractors frequently used or applied asbestos-containing materials in: 

  • Ceiling tiles 
  • Asphalt roof shingles2
  • Wall and attic insulation (or “loose fill” insulation) 
  • Certain textured paints and patching compounds 
  • Insulating materials inside, on, and around furnaces, boilers and ducts 
  • Asbestos on Carpet or in carpet underlays 
  • 9” x 9” vinyl floor tiles 
  • 12” x 12” vinyl floor tiles 
  • Other building materials 

The once-widespread use of asbestos in home construction means that many houses built in the 1920s will contain asbestos. 

The Dangers of Asbestos Exposure 

Scientists believe there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. While most people who develop asbestos-related health conditions spent years working with the mineral, residential exposures and short-term asbestos exposures can still be dangerous. 

When asbestos fibers are scattered in the air, they are undetectable to the human eye. However, they can still be inhaled. 

Since asbestos fibers are so resilient, they can get trapped inside the respiratory system, embedding themselves in lung tissue. Over time, asbestos fibers may accumulate, causing severe health problems years after an initial exposure.3

People who have inhaled asbestos fibers are at risk for health conditions including but not limited to: 

  • Lung scarring 
  • Lung inflammation 
  • Asbestosis 
  • Mesothelioma 
  • Lung cancer
  • Cancers of larynx and ovaries 
  • Cancers of the stomach, pharynx, and colorectum 

Deciding If You Need to Take Action 

If you live in a house built between the 1920s and 1970s, there is a significant chance it may contain asbestos in one or more locations. 

However, there is good news: while the inhalation of even small amounts of asbestos dust can present a significant health hazard, you are not necessarily in danger. This is because asbestos is most dangerous when it is friable and airborne. When asbestos is left undisturbed—inside walls, or underneath floors—it is unlikely to harm home-owners and occupants. 

In other words, people who live in asbestos-contaminated homes probably do not need to move out. But they should exercise extreme caution if and when they decide to perform any sort of home renovation that could disturb settled asbestos dust and asbestos fibres. 

Managing Asbestos Risk 

If you believe your 1920s home may contain asbestos, play it safe. Whenever you are removing floor tiles, replacing insulation, or re-shingling your roof, take asbestos management precautions by: 

  • Wearing a tight-fitting face mask 
  • Wearing disposable clothing, such overalls 
  • Taking measures to prevent the spread of asbestos into other rooms 
  • Decontaminating your clothing and tools
  • Ensuring that any coworkers or family members who assisted in the renovation are decontaminated 

If you are concerned about the possible presence of asbestos, your state or city probably maintains a registry of asbestos inspection and removal services—many jurisdictions even offer free or subsidized testing. 

What To Do About Potential Asbestos Exposure

If you believe you may have disturbed asbestos in a home, office, or other structure, you should immediately contact your local health authority. Most states and cities offer asbestos testing services and maintain public lists of licensed asbestos removal companies. 

Some businesses will also be able to conduct air quality tests to see if the asbestos fibers have scattered to or contaminated any surrounding sites. 

If you believe that you were exposed to asbestos, you could be entitled to significant compensation—money you could use to cover the costs of asbestos removal services, pay for medical treatment, and preemptively protect your physical well-being. 

If you have been diagnosed with an asbestos illness, you may qualify for compensation without filing a lawsuit.

AsbestosClaims.law is your comprehensive resource for all things asbestos. We hope this information helps you. If you have any additional questions or concerns related to asbestos, including testing for exposure or how to file a claim, please get in touch by email at [email protected], or call or text us at (833) 4-ASBESTOS (427-2378) or (206) 455-9190.

1 Washington Post, “Study of Homes Shows Little Asbestos Danger”, Sam Hankin (April 16, 1988).
2 US Dept. of Agriculture Forest Service,Early 20th-Century Building Materials: Siding and Roofing, Richa Wilson (Feb. 2008).
3 Mayo Clinic, Asbestosis.