You may think asbestos use has been banned in the United States, but surprisingly, the U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that still allows its use. You'll find asbestos in HVAC gaskets, in your brake pads and in fireproof clothing. However, according to EPA rules established in the late 1900s, no product can contain more than 1 percent of the dangerous mineral. Asbestos cannot be included in building materials, such as felt paper, insulation and flooring tiles.
The prohibitions against asbestos that do exist were rolled out in the 1980s, so if your house has floor tiles that predate the Reagan era, when the EPA published its asbestos ban and phase-out rule, they could contain asbestos, and they could be a health hazard. If they are starting to deteriorate, they could very well be releasing asbestos fibers into the air you and your family breathe.
Covering these tiles and leaving them in place is probably the best way to deal with them. It's a safe strategy and is sanctioned by the EPA. You have your choice of a number of ways to do this, but none of them involve nailing, stapling or screwing anything to the tiles. That exposes their cores and could release fibers into the air.
Asbestos Encapsulation as a Remediation Strategy
Asbestos removal is costly and dangerous, but there's no better way to deal with exposed insulation or deteriorating building materials made from asbestos. However, if the asbestos is encased and bound in a substrate, as it is in flooring tiles, an easier strategy is to simply leave it undisturbed and cover it. This strategy is called encapsulation, and as long as it prevents asbestos fibers from entering the air, it's an EPA-recommended way to deal with asbestos in your home. When it comes to asbestos tile, it's safe to cover the tiles as long as they are still in good condition, and they aren't fraying, cracked or broken.
Can You Paint Asbestos Tile?
Painting over asbestos tile is an effective method of encapsulation as long as you use the right paint. A standard wall paint product won't cut it because it will wear off, and that could make the situation worse for someone – perhaps a future owner of the house – who doesn't suspect the presence of asbestos. Use an epoxy or urethane floor paint or a clear floor finish instead and apply at least two coats. If the tiles have gaps between them, the paint or finish must cover them. It's a good idea to spread floor filler over the entire floor before painting to ensure the gaps are covered. It's also prudent and responsible to affix a warning label somewhere advising of the presence of asbestos in the tiles.
What Else Can I Use to Cover the Floor?
Any number of floor coverings are suitable for encapsulating asbestos tile, and they all have one thing in common: They don't require nailing. That rules out traditional hardwood flooring, but you can install a floating engineered hardwood floor. Laminate flooring and vinyl tiles also float over the subfloor and are also good choices. You can also choose a glue-down floor covering, such as sheet vinyl, self-stick vinyl tiles or glue-down hardwood. You can install ceramic, porcelain or stone tiles as long as the subfloor is flat and stable enough to support a tile floor.
Most floor coverings require a flat subfloor, and to achieve this, you may have to apply leveling compound to the asbestos tile-covered subfloor. If leveling compound is necessary, do not sand it. That will raise asbestos from the existing tiles and defeat the purpose of installing the new floor covering.