How to Tell the Difference between Cellulose and Asbestos Insulation?


    Asbestos minerals were rapidly used in construction for many of reasons during 1950s – 1980s. It was added into compounds, concrete mixes, vinyl products and insulation material.

    Nowadays renovation of house can rise up concerns about present asbestos in insulation and how to find out what type material was used during initial build.

    The only way to tell the difference between cellulose and asbestos insulation is to sample material and send it to labs for examination. Any other methods are not recommended and may be dangerous for untrained workers.

    Saying all that, there are people who claim to distinct asbestos insulation from regular cellulose. We wanted to discuss this more and try to understand in all depth the possibility to differentiate these two materials.

    Made ofColorShineYear of Installation
    Asbestos InsulationMineralsBrownyes1950 – 1980
    Cellulose InsulationPaperGreyno1980 +
    Main differences between cellulose and asbestos insulation

    How to Tell if Insulation Has Asbestos?

    Asbestos is not the material, but a mineral that is added to insulation product. Asbestos rich material is known as Vermiculite.

    Vermiculite insulation has 4 main differences:

    • Manufacturing
    • Distinct Color
    • Shine
    • Year of Installation

    During renovation or demolition its already too late to try and understand what type of material you have for insulation. Designated report should be provided prior to even touching materials that are questionable and have potential danger to health.

    Nevertheless Remodel On Point wants to spread the word about how asbestos contaminated insulation looks, if for some reason lab results were not done.

    Manufacturing – Vermiculite insulation is manufactured from natural minerals. All parts of insulation are mined and combined together at factory.

    Tiny fibers are combined together into insulation material that expands when heated. It becomes great product for heat transfer, insulation of pipes and prevention of fire from electrical wires.

    Distinct Color – unlike other types of insulation, vermiculite material with asbestos has slightly darker or even brown color.

    Any other insulation can become darker with appearance of dust and potentially mistaken for asbestos material. This method of differentiating insulation is highly unreliable.

    Shine – Fibers from minerals create distinct shine of the insulation. All other types of material do not have any glow or shine, because of what they are made of.

    With years of time insulation sits behind walls with dust and other debris. The shine disappears and workers may confuse vermiculite with something else that causes less harm.

    Year of Installation – those who deal with asbestos remediation on daily basis know that most of contaminated materials were installed between 1950s and 1980s.

    Mines that produced almost all of vermiculite closed in 1990 and construction industry moved on to safe materials for insulation production.

    Main Distinctions of Cellulose Insulation

    As technology and safety measures advance, cellulose insulation was designed specifically to substitute dangerous asbestos contaminated material.

    It is paper based and literally looks like shredded rough paper. It becomes so thin; you may think those are some sort of fibers.

    The color of cellulose insulation is somewhere between light and dark grey. It depends on how long it was installed and how much darker it got with mix of dust and other debris.

    Leaks of air create much darker look, because it transports small dust particles which get trapped inside insulation.

    Cellulose insulation is primarily blown into the attic or wall cavities covered with vapor barrier.

    Experienced Professionals Know What to Expect

    Although these methods are highly not recommended and prohibited within remediation companies, some professionals that have experience working with asbestos for over few decades can sometimes predict contaminated substance.

    To regular person there would be no visible difference between cellulose and asbestos insulation, while remediation teams can expect one or the other in certain homes.

    • Approximate Age of House
    • How it Looks

    We cannot stress enough to repeat over and over that the only proper way to identify asbestos in material is to perform lab test.

    Approximate Age of House – educated workers know during which years asbestos was popular in home construction.

    Simply figuring out age of the house is first good hint whether cellulose or asbestos insulation was used in attic as well as between studs.

    How it Looks – to untrained eye all insulation looks the same, but veterans of industry can distinct asbestos from regular cellulose.

    Of course the rate is not 100%, and very often they can be wrong. This is not the method to be used for finding contaminated material for sure.

    7-8 times out of 10 asbestos remediation can see that certain material is either asbestos or cellulose. As long as we know it could be just lucky guessing.

    How Not to Test Insulation for Asbestos

    Methods of distinguishing asbestos insulation from cellulose listed above are just for comparison and education on each substance. They should not be used to identify presence of designated substance by any means.

    However our team wanted to underline two common ways to figure out what material workers are dealing with. They are highly dangerous, but some people rely on them anyways till this day.

    Believe Someone Else

    Under no circumstance information about designated substance should be hidden or undisclosed. Just because someone says this specific insulation is safe to work with does not mean you should believe it.

    Home owner, your boss or fellow workers can tell you all day long that they are 100% sure based on some information they know, insulation has no asbestos in it.

    Designated substance survey has to be completed and posted on jobsite for safety of all workers and occupants.

    Smell or Taste

    Only people that do not care for their life or have absolutely zero understanding about asbestos’ health hazards would try to smell or taste material.

    It may even seem funny, but these people exist and many of them die every year due to poor decision making. Working around asbestos without personal protective equipment leads to serious illnesses and trying to smell it is even worse.

    How to Handle Both Asbestos and Cellulose Insulation

    Removing or installing cellulose insulation is a piece of cake. After many studies, this material concluded to be safe for human’s health while working with cellulose outdoor and indoor.

    Simple mask is recommended for use, because inhaling any particles but air is not right. It can lead to minor health problems or allergies.

    Remediation of insulation with asbestos is far more serious. It starts from special personal protective equipment and goes as far as technical equipment during room pressurizing and required licenses to work with designated substance.

    Only approved professionals should work with asbestos substance, because they have been trained and know how to handle different types of asbestos.

    Steven H.
    Steven H.
    General Contractor and Home Builder with over 20 years of experience. Write and Edit educational posts for several Remodeling Blogs. Specialize in trade management and technical construction details.

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