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The Nasty Art of Removing Popcorn Ceiling Texture - Part 1

This article is reproduced with permission from the Olympic Region Clean Air Agency in Lacey, WA. It has been slightly modified to be viewed by a
general audience. References to local laws, rules, regulations and procedures may or may not apply to you in your area.

In the 70's sprayed ceilings became the rage as contractors realized "gazillions" in savings by spraying all their ceilings with a lumpy texture we know as "popcorn" texture.  Well, sometimes removal of the popcorn texture is desired.  As builders are returning to the traditional flat or surface textured ceiling, homeowners are looking for guidance in removing the existing popcorn texture.

The focus of this article is on the mechanical removal of spray textures but also on the risks and cautions involved... especially if yours contains asbestos, a known carcinogen.   Many of the early spray mixes did contain significant amounts of asbestos, but there is no way to know for sure without laboratory testing.

Also, the instructions in this article are for "popcorn" texture that has not been painted.  Painted texture cannot be "wetted" because it will not absorb water... hence other removal methods are necessary.  For example, a professional might use a chemical paint stripper, such as Lemon Peel from FiberLock.  This is a non-methylene chloride stripper that will cling to walls and ceilings and also stay wet for long periods of time.  As you will see from this article, "wet" is the key to keeping asbestos fibers under control.

Even if your ceiling does not contain asbestos, scraping and sanding should be done cautiously.  Dust control is still important since even non-asbestos dusts pose health hazards.  For example, the paint used to coat the popcorn may contain lead... another known hazard, especially to children.

However you decide to proceed, we hope that you follow local laws, rules and guidelines to keep yourself and your family safe and your home healthy!  Many areas have heavy restrictions on asbestos removal by non-professionals.  Should you violate the law, the legal penalties may ruin your life!

And definitely think twice before attempting this project if you discover asbestos!


How to Properly Remove Sprayed-on “Popcorn” Ceilings:
Asbestos Removal Procedures For Homeowners

IMPORTANT:  Read these procedures from start to finish, making sure you thoroughly understand them, before any asbestos abatement is undertaken.

The Olympic Region Clean Air Agency assumes no liability or responsibility for injuries, illnesses or related
health problems arising from your performing an asbestos removal project. You assume all risks involved!!

Are you sure your ceiling contains asbestos?

Not all spray-on “popcorn” ceilings contain asbestos. To know for sure, submit “popcorn” samples for laboratory analysis. Cost is minimal. Laboratories are listed in the yellow pages under “Asbestos - Consulting and Testing.”

To obtain a sample, use a spray bottle to thoroughly wet three or four small ceiling areas with water mixed with a few drops of liquid detergent. Using a putty knife, take a composite sample by carefully scraping about one square inch of “popcorn” from each area into a zip-lock plastic bag. If the lab results are negative, meaning less than 1% asbestos was found in the sample, take two additional samples to confirm the analysis.

If you decide not to check for asbestos, assume the ceiling contains asbestos and treat it accordingly.

If so, are you sure you want to remove it?

Remember, asbestos is a problem only if fibers are released to the air.  Asbestos-containing "popcorn" ceilings that are in good repair and not being disturbed will not release asbestos fibers.  Hence, the safest, easiest and least expensive option may be to leave it alone.

Sometimes, it is possible to work around asbestos without removing it.  For example, "popcorn" ceilings that are in good condition can usually be painted (spraying is recommended).  However, be aware that painting these ceilings may prevent you form safely removing them in the future.

Do-it-yourself removal is highly dependent on your ability to thoroughly wet this material before disturbing it.  Paint can seal the "popcorn" material, making it difficult of impossible to wet.

Words of Caution before starting your project!

You are liable...

Your only legal options in having asbestos removed from your home are to hire a certified asbestos abatement contractor or do the work yourself. The law prohibits you from hiring anyone other than an asbestos abatement contractor to perform asbestos removal work. Family members may participate legally, provided they do so as unpaid volunteers. Be advised that the removal procedures described in this publication are intended to help home owners minimize health risks associated with “do-it-yourself” asbestos removal. However, it should be understood that removing asbestos from your home can be dangerous. Some release of asbestos fibers into the air is unavoidable and there are no known safe levels of asbestos exposure.

Be aware that no set of instructions can address all possible situations and variables that a home owner may encounter in an asbestos removal project. In this publication, we have tried to address the more common and most important issues involved in removing popcorn ceilings.

However, common sense dictates that unique and particularly challenging projects should not be undertaken by the homeowner. In such cases, it would be prudent to avoid the possibility of asbestos contamination by abandoning the “do- it- yourself” approach and hiring a certified asbestos abatement contractor.

The work will be difficult...

It is important to note that even under the best circumstances, home owner- performed asbestos projects can be both physically demanding and potentially dangerous.

  • Breathing through a respirator is more difficult than normal breathing, thus placing an additional stress on heart and lungs.
  • Protective clothing can be hot and uncomfortable.
  • Work space can become very humid due to the water used in wetting the asbestos.
  • Eye protection often results in reduced visibility.
  • Caution must be taken with wiring and electrical power because of all the water being used to wet the asbestos.

Understand that as a home owner, you do not have the equipment, materials, and experience of an asbestos abatement contractor to perform this work. Unlike contractors, who have special machines with high efficiency filters to remove fibers from the workplace air, you have few, if any, “back- ups” if something goes wrong.

The work may cause damage...

These procedures may result in damage to walls and ceilings.  Duct tape can discolor wood paneling, tear wallpaper and remove paint and texture. Water may stain walls. Using metal scrapers on wetted plasterboard ceiling may result in tearing of the plasterboard paper.

If your ceiling has been painted . . .

If your “popcorn” ceiling has been painted, you may not be able to penetrate the paint with water to thoroughly wet the asbestos containing material prior to the disturbance. Thorough wetting is critical for preventing the release of asbestos fibers during removal. Try one or more test areas to determine if you can penetrate the paint layer to thoroughly wet the material prior to disturbance. Use a plastic spray bottle containing a teaspoon or less of liquid detergent (wetting agent) in water. Spray water over a few square inches of ceiling, allowing up to 15- 20 min. For the water to soak in. Re- spray several times during this period. Then scrape off the material carefully with a small putty knife, catching the debris on a piece of sheet plastic held in your other hand. Examine the removed “popcorn” material for wetness.

Dispose of the debris by carefully wrapping it in the plastic, sealing it with duct tape and placing it in the garbage. If the removed “popcorn” was not thoroughly wet, try increasing the number of spray applications, the amount of wetting agent used and times for soaking in to determine the best way to achieve the maximum wetting of your spray- on material. If after trying various spray procedures, you are unable to get water through the paint in order to saturate the “popcorn” to the ceiling substrate, do not undertake this project. Leave the ceiling alone or hire an asbestos abatement contractor to do the work. If you remove this ceiling dry, you will contaminate your home with asbestos and expose yourself and your family to potentially high concentrations of airborne asbestos fibers. These fibers may remain in your home indefinitely.

Click here for Part 2 - Removal Procedures

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