What does asbestos smell like?

Asbestos is a harmful mineral that can cause cancer if you inhale it. Since this substance poses such a high risk, it should be easy to identify. Many toxic substances, including mold and chemicals, have a distinctive smell that help you identify and eliminate them, but asbestos is not one of them. Unlike natural gas and other toxic substances, asbestos isn’t identifiable by smell. You can’t tell you have been exposed by walking into a room and inhaling a tell-tale odor.

Buildings constructed before 1989 likely have asbestos in their insulation, texture, and other building materials, but you can’t tell by smelling them. The only way to know for sure that your home or building has asbestos is to test for it. 

Why People Think Asbestos Has a Smell

People often associate asbestos with the materials surrounding it. If you think you smell asbestos, you are likely experiencing non-related smells from demolition and other related causes. What you smell often depends on what you’re doing to release asbestos particles. These particles only become airborne when they’re disturbed. For example, your popcorn ceiling probably contains asbestos, but you’re not at a high risk of inhaling the particles unless you dislodge the “popcorn.” 
If you’re cleaning or painting the ceiling and break the texture, you could be releasing asbestos particles into the air. In this case, you would smell the paint or the product you’re using to clean the ceiling. 
When you’ve put holes in your ceiling doing construction and electrical projects, you may have dislodged asbestos particles. Or you could have dislodged them while renovating an old building. If you’ve dislodged asbestos while doing construction, you’re likely smelling dust, wood rot, or chemicals. You’re not smelling asbestos.   

Non-Asbestos Related Smells

You may have noticed suspicious smells on a construction site or in an asbestos-containing structure after it was damaged. If you’ve worked on or near a construction site during an asbestos abatement project, you were most likely smelling wet materials. 

Since asbestos poses the highest risk when floating through the air, abatement teams usually wet materials to keep fibers from becoming airborne. If you’re on a site during an abatement project, you’ll probably notice a bad smell coming from wet carpeting, insulation, and other building materials. Sometimes, contractors use chemicals in the abatement process, which mixes with other demolition-related smells. 

If you live in an older building that smells musty or stale, the main culprit is probably mold. When you have a mold problem in your home or office, the smell will probably get stronger as the mold grows. Mold exposure comes with its own risks, but this smell doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve been exposed to asbestos. 

Concrete is another common source of demolition-related smells. During demolition, concrete gives off a dusty odor. In an older building, the concrete has likely absorbed multiple substances, including chemicals, leaking car fluids, and pet stains, among others. When this concrete is demolished, the dust releases these particles into the air, which can make the dust smell different than fresh concrete. 

Removing Asbestos

Since asbestos is so dangerous, you should leave removal and abatement to the professionals. Removing and disposing of asbestos requires a license, and these specialists use specific procedures to protect themselves and you from being exposed. 

Professional asbestos-abating companies usually seal off the area and ventilate it with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. Everyone on the site should also wear a protective mask. The site should not be unsealed until the abatement is finished, and damaged materials have been disposed of properly. 

Asbestos in Auto Parts

Asbestos isn’t limited to buildings. The material was used in a variety of car parts, which is why auto mechanics are at a higher risk of exposure. These parts may contain asbestos, particularly in older models: 

  • Brakes
  • Clutches
  • Gaskets, Valves, and Seals
  • Electrical Insulation
  • Spark Plugs
  • Heat Shields
  • Mufflers
  • Undercoating
  • Soundproofing
  • Insulation

You can’t smell asbestos in a car part. If it does have asbestos, it won’t smell any different than another part. If the part smells burnt or damaged, the smell isn’t coming from asbestos. Unlike building materials, asbestos is still widely used in modern car parts, as detailed by the EPA, particularly brakes and clutches. You may be able to consult packaging materials or find a data sheet from the manufacturer to determine if the part contains asbestos. 

To reduce your risk of exposure, OSHA recommends using a HEPA vacuum system to protect yourself. They also recommend cleaning with low pressure or water to avoid sending particles into the air. If you’re a car enthusiast or someone who likes to tinker with cars yourself, don’t use compressed air to clean parts. Never use a dry rag or brush to clean brakes and clutches. 

If you vacuum dust from your worksite, use a vac with a HEPA filter. Avoid tracking asbestos-related dust through your home by removing your work clothes and shoes before going back into the house. Keep a change of clothes near the garage. 

Does Burnt Asbestos Smell? 

Although most surfaces smell after they’ve been in a fire, asbestos is an exception. Its fire resistance was one reason many manufacturers included it in building materials for so many decades. If your home or commercial building has been in a fire, you won’t be able to smell burnt asbestos. 

However, it is possible that the fire damage released asbestos particles into the air, particularly if the fire burned your shingles, insulation, and other common asbestos-containing materials.  When you’re assessing a fire-ravaged area, wear an air-purifying mask to protect yourself from asbestos and other hazardous particulates. Have a professional test for asbestos and properly remove it before you start your repairs. 

Risks of Inhaling Asbestos

Although you can’t tell if you’ve been exposed to asbestos by smell, you’re still at risk if you’ve inhaled it. Inhaling asbestos can put you at risk for asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer. Because the fibers are so small, they can get lodged in your lungs, causing inflammation, and damaging surrounding cells. These damaged cells can start to grow abnormally, leading to cancer.

Asbestos exposure also puts you at increased risk of COPD and other obstructive lung diseases. Recently, asbestos exposure has been linked to colon cancer and laryngeal cancer. You’re at a higher risk if you worked in an industry that is known for high exposure, such as construction, industrial work, firefighting, military service, and automotive, among others.

While working at these jobs, you would not have smelled asbestos. You would need a medical test to see if you have lung damage or other asbestos-related impacts to your health. 

What to Do If You’ve Been Exposed

Because it takes years for asbestos-related illnesses to develop, you may feel like you don’t have options. You may have worked in a hazardous occupation decades ago and are now dealing with the consequences. However, if you’ve been exposed to asbestos, you may be entitled to compensation. Many statutes of limitation for asbestos-related claims are based on the date of your diagnosis. 

If you’ve been exposed to asbestos and have developed mesothelioma or lung cancer, The Lanier Law Firm is here to help. Our practice was founded on client care. We believe in your case and have the skills and experience needed to help you get compensated for your illness. 

We have a proven track record of successfully resolving asbestos exposure and mesothelioma cases. Our experienced team has the knowledge and resources necessary to understand your case and represent you. 

We are ready to help you navigate your claim. Contact us today and speak with one of our compassionate attorneys, standing by to help you and your family.

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