Popcorn ceilings (a.k.a. acoustic, textured, spray or cottage cheese ceilings) are not exactly the darling of the design world. How things change. For more than half a century from the 1930s to the 1990s, they held a lofty position in homes across North America. This spray-on, stucco-type finish was popular with builders it because it helped to hide small imperfections. Another benefit was improved fire resistance thanks to asbestos. Wait. What? 

Yes, asbestos—the notorious cancer-causing mineral—has covered the ceilings of hundreds of thousands of homes.  It has also been added to everything from insulation to car brake pads.

The Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S.began banning asbestos products in the early 1970s but it wasn’t until 1978 that they banned its use in spray-applied surfacing materials. To reduce the economic hardship on manufacturers who had warehouses full of the spray, they were allowed to sell their stock.  This means that popcorn ceilings with asbestos continued to be applied into the early 1980s—at least in the U.S.

Asbestos is still used in Canada and perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Canada was the world’s fifth largest producer of asbestos until the mines were shut down in 2011.  Five years later, in February 2016, the federal labour minister Maryann Mihychuk told reporters1: “[Asbestos is] still being used in a lot a circumstances, for example, sewer systems, for insulation around pipes. We’re considering the ban but we’re not there yet.”

Canadian homeowners should be careful with any renovation project including removing popcorn ceilings. If there is asbestos in the material, the removal process will almost certainly expose you to the tiny particles, which can get absorbed deep into your lungs causing scarring, breathing difficulties and sometimes cancer.

For approximately $45, you can have your popcorn ceiling material tested. There are many laboratories that provide asbestos testing with most offering mail-in test kits.  Check online or inquire at your local hardware store. If your test is positive, consult a professional removal company. If the test shows there is no asbestos, the popcorn finish can be removed by a drywall contractor or home renovation service. 

Another option is to try one of these cost-saving DIY techniques:

  • Power sander with a dust collection hose: Professional drywall installers often use this tool to smooth a plaster finish.  Porter-Cable offers a model for approximately $500 that has a long vacuum hose and is relatively lightweight at 5kg. Simply start at one corner of the ceiling and sand in a straight line parallel to the wall.  Try to maintain a light, even pressure to ensure you don’t sand away the drywall paper underneath the popcorn.
  • Power sander with a dust collection chamber: A small, handheld power sander with a dust collection chamber is your next best choice. Since the chamber is small it will require frequent emptying but this is a far better option than sanding without any sort of collector—you would be vacuuming up the fine power for months!
  • Water and putty knife: Spray a small area with water. Allow it to soak in for a minute then scrap away the popcorn material with a putty knife. Work in small sections before the water dries. Be careful to use only as much water as you need to soften the surface without warping and/or staining the sheeting beneath. 

If you are ready to tackle your popcorn ceiling, consider these helpful tools and tips:

  • Cover or remove your furniture from the work area to avoid the dust and splatter. Even tools with dust collectors do not capture all of the particulate.
  • Use a dust mask. Even if there is no asbestos, inhaling powdered stucco material is unhealthy. You can buy an inexpensive mask for a dollar or a respirator that provides significantly better protection for approximately $40.
  • Keep pets out of the area.
  • Ideally have someone hold the ladder while you work.
  • Patch any imperfections with drywall putty, let dry, then sand.

A smooth ceiling opens up a whole range of exciting design options.  You can paint it a solid colour, get creative with airbrush effects and artwork or even apply opulent gold or silver leaf. 

1 Julie Ireton, “Federal labour minister says she will consider asbestos ban” (CBC News, February 3, 2016),  http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/federal-labour-minister-says-she-will-consider-asbestos-ban-1.3431081

 

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