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Asbestos vs. Cellulose: What’s the Difference?

Legally Reviewed by Joseph P. Williams on July 27, 2022

Asbestos is a highly dangerous known carcinogen that was widely used as an insulation material in the United States until it was banned in the late 1970s. Cellulose is also a popular insulation material, but it is safe and was used to replace asbestos after the health risks associated with the latter were discovered.

If you are the owner of an older home or property, it is important to learn how to tell the difference between asbestos and cellulose insulation. If your home is contaminated with asbestos, you may need to take prompt action to keep yourself and your family safe. Contact the Williams Law Firm today to understand your options if you have been exposed to asbestos.

What Is Asbestos? What Does it Look Like?

Asbestos refers to a group of naturally occurring minerals. Asbestos is fibrous and was valued for its strength, durability, versatility and fire resistance in the manufacture of consumer goods before it was banned. It was most often used in building and construction, such as shipbuilding materials, ceiling tiles, furnace and boiler components, paint, cement, shingles, ductwork, and insulation.

asbestos fibers

Asbestos typically looks like thin fibers. In a home, asbestos insulation often appears grayish-brown or silver-gold and resembles pebbles in texture. If you take down a wall or visit your attic, you may spot asbestos insulation based on its brown, white or blue color. The most commonly used type of asbestos for insulation is chrysotile, which is white and has a layered structure with curly fibers. While you should never touch anything that could potentially be asbestos, it often crumbles readily when disturbed.

What Is Cellulose?

Cellulose insulation is the most popular material currently used in construction. It is made mostly from recycled paper, along with cardboard, newspaper, hemp and straw. The insulation material is treated with boric acid to make it resistant to fire. Unlike asbestos, cellulose is safe for human exposure and does not pose a risk of cancer.


Builders can tightly pack dry cellulose fibers in walls and other places for insulation purposes or apply wet cellulose (dry cellulose mixed with water) using a spraying process. Cellulose can be found in modern homes as well as older structures. Dry cellulose insulation is fluffy. It is typically beige, gray or tan and may resemble papier-mâché, paper pulp or shredded paper.

Major Differences Between Asbestos vs. Cellulose

In appearance alone, asbestos and cellulose insulation look very similar. For a nonexpert, it can be impossible to tell the difference. They may both appear fluffy, dense and lumpy in texture. Both can be found in dry, crumbly forms or sprayed on in sheets or foam. Both types of insulation can also take similar colors: brown, gray and white. Rather than trying to tell them apart, don’t touch the insulation and hire a professional for testing.

If you are renovating your home and have uncovered old insulation materials, you should hire a professional to inspect the insulation and test it for asbestos. The best way to protect yourself is to have a professional come in before you touch, move or disturb the insulation in any way. If it does contain asbestos, disturbing the insulation can lift the fibers into the air, where they may be inhaled. If lab tests come back positive for asbestos, you may need a professional to remove the asbestos and make your home safe again.

Harmed By Asbestos? Contact an Attorney

If you have been diagnosed with an illness connected to asbestos exposure, you may be entitled to file a lawsuit against the owner of the property where you were exposed. If you were exposed through a contaminated product, such as asbestos insulation, you may have a claim against the manufacturer. You may also have grounds to file a lawsuit on behalf of a deceased loved one. For more information about asbestos lawsuits, contact The Williams Law Firm, P.C. today.

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