Safely remove popcorn ceilings?
February 17, 2011 5:38 PM   Subscribe

I recently purchased a condo and it comes with popcorn ceilings. I want them removed but I had an asbestos abatement company come to look at them and they determined that they contained a "trace" amount, or less than one percent, asbestos. They provided me an outlandish quote for safe and sanitary (as well as legally up and up) removal. Doing some web research, I find their quote to be about standard for what similar companies charge.

So my questions are:

1) What does the notion of a "trace" amount mean in real terms. Is it still dangerous? If I say had a contractor or handyman do the work would they and, over the long term, me, be safe from asbestos related health effects when there is only a "trace" amount?

2) How long does asbestos stay in the air if you remove it without all the regulations of the abatement company. Is it possible it could stay floating around for days/weeks/years? Or lying in the carpet to shoot back up into the air when I vacuum?

Basically I don't want to pay the huge sum the abatement company charges but at the same time I want to be completely safe from asbestos now and in the future. So if anyone here has experience in this area (I mean real experience, not just "Well I removed mine myself and it's been a year and I'm still alive" type answers - Asbestos takes 30 years to show it's negative health effect). The advice I'm getting ranges from "Don't take any chances at all" to "You're getting ripped off/they see you coming a mile away/anyone can remove it, just get some guys from in front of Home Depot".

My life and ethics are worth more to me than my money, but that being said, if my life and ethics won't be in danger, I'd rather not spend the money.
posted by Stryke11 to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Can you legally pull a permit for this work in your municipality without a clearance stating that the material to be demolished is asbestos-free? Because the decision may not actually be in your hands--because asbestos is a public-health issue (nobody's insurance can really cover the immense costs of treatment for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases), many municipalities are pretty focused on making sure that people don't do unprotected demos of anything that might contain asbestos.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:43 PM on February 17, 2011

You've got a quote in hand. Go ask the other abatement companies if they can beat the price. They may well be a cartel, especially because licensing is involved, but there's no harm in trying to spur some competition.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 5:47 PM on February 17, 2011

Did they perform actual testing and provide you with the results?

As far as your costs, depending on where you live, if the presence of asbestos was not disclosed before you bought the condo, the previous owners may be liable for part of the cost of abatement. Check your state's disclosure laws.
posted by amyms at 5:53 PM on February 17, 2011

I am not a contractor but can you adjust to the popcorn ceiling. You can paint it and that will seal it and would reduce/remove your problem. A trace amount seems questionable to me. I'd have another inspection with another company. You need to see a written report with real numbers.
posted by JayRwv at 5:59 PM on February 17, 2011

not to be contrary to your desire to remove it, but have you thought of simply covering the whole shebang with drywall? in a former life i used to do construction and painting work. there was a particular property where we were going to remove the popcorn ceiling, but it turned out in trying, there were at least 3 layers of that crap. our original signed contract for the job would have left us more than upside down had we actually attempted to completely remove every trace.

we ended up hiring a couple of day laborers to completely drywall the ceilings, including mudding and sanding the new ceiling to make them smooth. then we simply rolled the ceilings a perfectly smooth shade of white and were all done. i would imagine, depending on how many square feet of ceiling we're talking, you could have everything done by some folks in two days. there are a lot of great drywall guys out of work right now, and then you'd have sealed off your trace asbestos in the process. unless your ceilings are super super low and you can't afford to lose 1/4 inch, i really think it's the best way to go.
posted by Bohemia Mountain at 6:00 PM on February 17, 2011 [7 favorites]

I am in California. The inspector came in for a bit, I was busy with another inspector so didn't follow him around. He informed me at the end that there was a "trace" (less than 1%) asbestos in the ceiling, and 2% (strangely) in the walls, though I'm not doing anything to the walls and as far as I'm aware you are only in danger when you remove the hazardous material, it's fine if you just leave it alone.

He went further to say that a permit was not needed. However, again, I'm more concerned about maximizing my safety, so even if the city/county/state doesn't require a permit, if the abatement company will give me a 0% chance of health hazards. while having a contractor do it will be like 5%, it's still low, but for my peace of mind the cost is worth it. However, if someone on here is a contractor and knows through experience/knowledge that the health risk from removing my ceiling as it is stated is non-existent no matter who does it then I can consider cheaper options.

As for disclosure, I am not yet the owner of the place, escrow hasn't closed, but it wasn't disclosed though I know and the seller knows the report the abatement company gave (at my request). As far as I know I could ask the seller to contribute but they don't have to because as long as I leave the ceilings alone (as they did, for 35-odd years) there is no risk. The removal is my choice.
posted by Stryke11 at 6:06 PM on February 17, 2011

Unless you rake your fingernails across it, any fiber release will be negligible, down to zero.

Yes, it is good to get rid of this stuff, but you need to figure out exactly what type of fiber you are dealing with (amosite is the worst) and exactly how much of it there is in there.

I would ask the contractor to show some candor about what they think.
posted by Danf at 6:07 PM on February 17, 2011

get a quote for covering the ceilings in fresh sheetrock. you'll lose less than an inch of ceiling height and it should be affordable and actually much much less disruptive than either abatement or finding someone foolish enough to take on removing it.
posted by at 6:13 PM on February 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm not clear when he presented you with the results of the inspection. He did an analysis with a microscope, right? We have a popcorn ceiling that we painted with oil base paint and it's holding up pretty well. My wife and I also covered another popcorn ceiling with drywall and it was pretty straightforward. The only mistake we made was thinking that 1/4" drywall would work just as well as 1/2". It was easy to put up but WAY more work to mud and get looking flat.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:35 PM on February 17, 2011

i can't put my finger on it but this smells like a scam. how can he get a 1% figure from a home inspection? I would recommend getting another independent quote.
posted by lester at 7:10 PM on February 17, 2011

Would covering the ceilings lower the resale value of the place? Not because of the reduction of height but because you're hiding a problem rather than removing it? Would you have to disclose that to any buyers?

When we're talking less expensive, anyone care to hazard a guess as to how much less expensive this would be than abatement? Even a rough % would be helpful.

The abatement quote I got for a little over 900sqft of ceilings was about $3800.
posted by Stryke11 at 9:51 PM on February 17, 2011

$3800 is in no way outlandish for anything remotely involving the words 'real' and 'estate' in the state of California.

Pay the four grand and move on.

Thank your fucking lucky stars that they didn't say it was going to be fifty thousand, and that they were going to report you to some derivative of the federal government.
posted by Sphinx at 10:56 PM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah. I'm looking for the part where they told you how they determined the amount of asbestos, especially in the walls.

Get a good scientific report. I'm not sure this is the right investment. I also think $3800 sounds great for California, but I used to have to hire folks here for work like this all the time and I question how good a job might be done, even if you are paying top dollar. Oh, the disappointing stories I could tell you about licensed vendors that came with positive recommendations...!

I really think you need a quality second opinion.

(if there is none or a miniscule amount of asbestos in the ceiling, I'm all for drywalling it. I'm actually worried about the walls. Walls have to be opened up all the time for repairs. If they are a health hazard, you really can't mitigate that.)
posted by jbenben at 11:21 PM on February 17, 2011

I work in the environmental industry (although when it comes to asbestos, I do occasional sampling, not abatement).

Trace just means less than 1%. Some regs in the US definite "asbestos-containing material" as containing one percent or more. It is absolutely possible for "trace" asbestos to release fibers. When you're actually removing the material, the relevant factor is how many fibers are in the air; any good abatement company should be testing this with air clearance samples before declaring the abatement done. (The air quality is also the determining factor for OSHA regs, incidentally, which is one reason I'd really not recommend the guys-in-front-of-Home-Depot route.)

The fact that the abatement company inspector didn't take actual, physical samples and send them to the lab is very hinky, although not necessarily a scam. I can think of two non-scam explanations for that: One, maybe he's worked in this building before (have any of your prospective neighbors dealt with this issue?), and he thinks he can visually ID the popcorn. Two, maybe he has some, ah, less than good beliefs about his ability to recognize asbestos visually. (I've worked with long-time ACM guys -- from other places, not from my company -- who very sincerely believe that 9x9 tile is ALWAYS asbestos and 12x12 NEVER is. Thing is, they're wrong -- I've sampled 12x12 and had it come up asbestos myself. And they do abatement on that assumption, rather than sampling. Those are the guys to avoid. If you ask an abatement contractor what he'd do with 12x12 floor tile and he tells you it's never asbestos, I'd avoid him.)

I'd recommend getting another abatement contractor in to look at it. This time, make sure they pull actual samples, and get a copy of the lab report.

The wall thing is also somewhat weird. It's not completely unheard of for asbestos to be in wallboard, but it's extremely rare -- it's almost always in the joint compound rather than the actual wallboard. Did he say which part of the wall it was in, or just "asbestos in the walls"? That's kind of imprecise for someone who works with asbestos. (And it might not even be the wall system he's talking about -- is there blown insulation in the walls? Pipe insulation?)
posted by pie ninja at 4:11 AM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm surprised no one's mentioned this yet, but... is it all surprising that an asbestos abatement company is telling you you need to pay them to remove asbestos?

Get a second opinion. If it turns out that there is asbestos present, yeah, pay the four grand. But I wouldn't be at all surprised if you got someone else in there who didn't find any.
posted by valkyryn at 4:37 AM on February 18, 2011

Nthing the advice about getting your own lab report from someone who doesn't have a vested interest in taking more of your money. Not all popcorn ceilings have asbestos. If the place was built after 1980, it almost certainly doesn't. If it's clean, you can take the stuff off yourself with a spray bottle full of water and a scraper. I've done it myself, and while it's messy, it's not that hard. (Note: If you try this, wear eye protection.)
posted by Shoggoth at 9:08 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

You can take a sample and send it in to a lab at little cost. That the contractor did not do this as a matter of procedure is a bit disconcerting. Yes, go with a second opinion but do make sure to get a lab report done. This will help you decide risk vs. cost.
posted by loquat at 10:18 AM on February 18, 2011

I wouldn't sweat the correctness of the content, whether the contractor tested it first. Ask a couple of other contractors to give you a price. They won't test it either, because it doesn't really matter to them. 1%, 5%, 10%, the labor and protection regimes are the same. The cost is the same. $3800 is a big chunk of change, but relatively speaking...not really all that big. California asbestos removal = dollar signs.

Yes, you can leave it up. You can paint over it. It's pretty much ok until you scrape it or cut it, anything that results in dust is bad.

As far as the inspector saying you don't need a permit - take that with a grain of salt. The licensed asbestos removal contractor should know the local codes. He may need to pull a ministerial permit (called a counter permit, like over-the-counter drugs), but that won't involve you, and it should be included in the cost quote he gives you. Ask him about that to be sure.
posted by Xoebe at 1:24 PM on February 18, 2011

Ah yeah, I assumed - like the contractor - that it had asbestos. You can have it tested, and if it doesn't have asbestos, you can remove it yourself. If the popcorn dates prior to 1980, it almost certainly has asbestos.
posted by Xoebe at 1:27 PM on February 18, 2011

Thanks everyone! I have a small sample which I will be having tested in a neutral site, and I also have contacted other abatement companies and they have pretty much agreed with the quote I got from the first.

I'm not going to go the drywall route as I asked around about it locally and was told it would actually cost more than the removal.

I appreciate everyone who helped.
posted by Stryke11 at 4:52 PM on February 18, 2011

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