Asbestos Carpet Underlay – Is the Danger Under Your Feet?

Most homeowners know the common places to look out for asbestos, from the insulation to textured ceilings, but what many people don’t realise is that the danger could be right under their feet. In the 1960s and 1970s, underlay was often made using recycled hessian bags which contained asbestos, and installed in many homes. Therefore, if you have an older carpet underlay, you may need to have asbestos analysis carried out to ensure it doesn’t contain this dangerous mineral. Although the risk is low, even small amounts of asbestos can be hazardous to health, which is why professional advice is so important.  

Why can old underlay contain asbestos?

Carpet underlay was often made from old hessian bags in the 1960s and 1970s, and these bags sometimes came from abroad, having been used to ship goods. Made from asbestos, wool, jute, and even materials such as goat hair, these bags would be shredded and cleaned. Luckily, in many samples all the asbestos has been removed during this process.

Am I at risk?

If your carpet was installed pre-1980 then there’s a small risk that it might contain asbestos. Therefore, it’s important not to rip up old carpet without getting it checked. If you pull up an old underlay, dust and fibres are released into the air, which could contain asbestos particles. While the ill-effects of breathing asbestos aren’t always noticeable straight away, breathing in fibres could lead to lung conditions decades later.

What does asbestos carpet underlay look like?

One of the reasons you need to bring professionals in to test for asbestos is because it can be hard to identify by looks alone. In most cases the dangerous underlay is a brown material that looks like a woven sack, but many older underlays have this look. The only way to really know for sure is to get asbestos analysis carried out by experts.

Vacuuming an old carpet

If you have an older carpet, it should still be perfectly safe to vacuum it. Asbestos is dangerous when disturbed, but if it’s used in an underlay, the carpet should prevent it from being damaged. There’s no evidence to show that vacuuming a carpet would release asbestos fibres, so don’t worry if you’ve done this in the past.

Do I need to remove the underlay?

It may be that you have an older carpet, but don’t want to replace it, in which case, it’s worth speaking to the experts to get the underlay tested. The official advice is that the risk from asbestos underlay is low, and as long as its not disturbed, it shouldn’t cause issues. However, when homeowners find out they’ve got asbestos in their house, most of them choose to get it removed. This is because there’s always a small risk it’ll get damaged or disturbed, and in a situation, such as a fire, it just adds an extra hazard.

Old carpets can also wear or become torn and damaged over time. While they can last for decades, they will eventually degrade, which then removes the barrier between you and the asbestos.

Another thing to consider is whether you plan to sell your house in future. Any potential owners will need to be notified of the presence of asbestos to ensure they don’t just pull up the carpet, and it’s something that can put off buyers. For peace of mind, you might find removal the easiest choice.

Removing asbestos underlay

Because of the risk of even small amounts of asbestos, it’s important to leave it to professionals. They will be able to:

  • Bring the correct safety equipment such as masks
  • Pull up the old underlay and remove any remaining dust
  • Wrap the underlay in plastic as per safety guidelines
  • Ensure it’s disposed of properly at a certified facility

That’s why it’s best not to attempt a DIY job, as improper sealing or disposal can see you falling foul of environmental health rules. It’s also the kind of job that’s better left to professionals, as they can ensure there’s no trace of the old underlay, giving you a blank canvas, ready to lay the new carpet.

Hessian bags

If you have any old hessian bags laying around the garage, then you should also get them disposed of. These old bags could have been made with asbestos, or been used to carry asbestos, which means they can pose a danger. Don’t try to wrap them up yourself, or transport them in your car. Simply call asbestos removal specialists who can pick them up and dispose of them properly.

Carpet glue

Up until the 1980s, asbestos was occasionally used in adhesives. In some cases, these glues were used to seal the edges of carpets and other flooring such as laminates or tiles. As with underlay, it doesn’t pose an immediate danger, as it’s difficult for the fibres to escape. However, as the adhesive gets older, it can flake and become more dangerous, and if disturbed it can cause problems. If you suspect any kind of asbestos has been used in your home, then you shouldn’t try to remove it, and get the experts in to test and offer advice.

Atmospheric testing

During and after removal, it’s essential that atmospheric testing be carried out. This ensures the level of airborne asbestos fibres is within the safe zone, and that it’s safe to return to your home. The problem with doing a DIY job is that dust and fibres can linger, which means there can still be dangers lurking.

Asbestos was a popular material before the 1980s, and it’s no surprise it’s found in so many places. If you’ve bought or inherited an older house, then you might be tempted to simply rip up the carpet, but before you do it’s important to get it tested. Asbestos removal is much easier if left to the professionals, and ensures that dangerous materials are disposed of properly. You’ll soon be back in your home, with the peace of mind that professional removal brings.