How deadly is my popcorn ceiling?

Almighty Alice!

When I was a kid growing up in Tierrasanta, we had popcorn ceilings (you know, that stuff that looks like cottage cheese?). My apartment in Point Loma has the same stuff, and I understand this shit is chock full of cancer-causing asbestos. Whenever I bring up the subject, some wiseass always says, "It's not harmful as long as you don't disturb it." Except any time you open the closet door or accidentally hit the ceiling with a broom handle, chunks of this stuff rain down. I understand that you only need to breathe a microscopic amount to develop lung cancer. So what's the story? Should I start making funeral arrangements? Or am I getting worked up over nothing?

-- Scared Shitless in Point Loma

You survived Tierrasanta, you'll survive Point Loma. Chill, my friend. Well, chill and stop hitting your ceiling with broom handles. Wiseass that I am, I can't pass up the opportunity to say it's not harmful as long as you don't disturb it.

Between 1945 and 1978, all kinds of building materials were made with asbestos. The ugliest and most omnipresent is that grim, blown-on ceiling crud. It's everywhere, mostly because it was a really cheap treatment that didn't require fine craftsmanship. But not all old popcorn contains asbestos. If you're serious about this, you can find a lab that will test a chunk of the stuff and let you know. But if you don't own the ceiling, of course, there's nothing you can do about it, so what's the point.

According to the EPA, there have been no confirmed reports of asbestos diseases from exposure to residential building materials or popcorn ceilings. The real risk is to those exposed to the stuff in quantity over a long period of time-- asbestos miners or processors, shipyard workers, asbestos sprayers. The incubation period for asbestos-related diseases can be anywhere from 20 to 40 years. Is this good news? I guess it is if you're go to bed every night afraid of your ceiling. But let me give you something new to think about. Know where most of our tokable asbestos comes from? Car brakes. Part of the dust around us is asbestos ground off our brakes with every panic stop. There's always the chance that you're safer under your popcorn ceiling than out on the road.

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