Asbestos, a fiber derived from mined minerals, was once an additive in construction materials, including flooring tile. Asbestos is naturally fire-resistant, and the addition of the fibers to vinyl and linoleum increased their tensile strength, so manufacturers used it liberally. In the 1980s, when it became apparent that asbestos was a cancer-causing agent, the United States banned its use in most construction materials. Many older homes, unfortunately, still have asbestos-based tile.
Identifying Asbestos Tile
The only way to be positive that your tiles contain asbestos is to have a sample tested by an accredited laboratory. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends treating all resilient flooring installed before 1980 as if it contains asbestos.
While there is a good chance that 9-inch and 12-inch tiles manufactured before 1980 contain asbestos, the hazardous fiber is also found in larger- and smaller-dimension tiles. Even the adhesive used to install the flooring, especially if it's black "cutback" adhesive, could contain asbestos. The same concerns apply to vinyl and other sheet-type flooring and attached fiber backing. According to the EPA, taking a sample for testing is not a do-it-yourself project. A professional familiar with asbestos should remove the sample and seal the removal area.
The term linoleum often is used to describe vinyl and other types of resilient flooring, but they are not the same materials. True linoleum is largely made with natural materials that do not contain asbestos. However, backings for old linoleum or linoleum-like flooring as well as adhesives used to install the flooring may contain asbestos. There are also some older flooring products that may combine linoleum with other materials containing asbestos. Therefore, it's safest to assume that any resilient flooring installed 1980 is suspect.
Ceramic tile is less likely to contain asbestos. Because the fibers come from a mineral that occurs naturally, however, and because ceramic products contain clay, there is a slight chance even ceramic tile could contain the fibers. A greater risk of the presence of asbestos in older ceramic tile floors or walls comes from the adhesive and the grout used during installation. Like resilient flooring, treat ceramic floors and walls installed before 1980 as if they contain asbestos unless testing indicates they do not.
Asbestos Health Risks
Asbestos poses the greatest health risk when its tiny fibers become airborne. Inhaling asbestos increases the risk of developing lung cancer or mesothelioma, which is a cancer of the membrane that surrounds internal organs, including the lungs. Most asbestos tiles, as long as they are not peeling or crumbling, are not a health risk, according to the EPA.
Removal and Remodeling
If you have asbestos tiles, and they are in good shape, the best thing you can do is leave them alone. You can install laminate flooring, carpet or new vinyl flooring right over the old flooring. If the tiles are coming loose, flaking or disintegrating, however, a contractor certified in asbestos remediation should remove them.
To prevent the release of airborne asbestos fibers, never use any type of grinding, chipping or sanding equipment that creates dust. Asbestos remediation contractors may opt for "wet removal," which involves dampening the tiles with water or oil to reduce the risk of airborne dust during the removal process. Even when taking these precautions, workers should wear full respiratory masks and disposable clothing.