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Asbestos Tiles: Identification, Risks, and Safe Removal Ways

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Asbestos is a toxic mineral that was once widely used in building materials. Floor tiles, along with insulation, were among the most common products containing asbestos made years ago.

Due to its excellent strength and ability to resist fire, asbestos was included in many materials, including vinyl and linoleum. Asbestos has been controlled since 1980 when the dangers it poses to health became widely known. However, it may still exist in many homes built or remodeled before that time.

Materials that might have asbestos are:

  • Adhesives and carpet glues
  • Cove bases
  • Floor tiles
  • Mastics

It’s not possible to know if tiles contain asbestos just by sight. Removing them can release harmful substances. But you can guess which tiles might have asbestos by their body features, as asbestos vinyl flooring was often made in specific dimensions.

Table of Contents

How to Identify Body Features of Asbestos Tiles

Knowing if your home’s tiles have asbestos just by looking at them is difficult. But you can look for these signs to see if they might contain this hazardous material:

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  • Tile Age: If your home or workplace was built before the 1980s, especially between 1950 and 1980, there’s a good chance the floors have asbestos. That’s when asbestos was widely used in construction.
  • Tile Size: Back then, asbestos floor tiles were often 9″x9″, 12″x12″, or sometimes 18″x18″ and thicker than today’s tiles.
  • Discoloration: If the tiles have an oily look or their color has faded, they might have asbestos. Asphalt was a main ingredient in these tiles, and the oil in it can come out and change the tile’s color.
  • Black Glue Under Tiles: If tiles are coming up and you see thick, black glue underneath, it’s probably black mastic. This asphalt-based glue often has asbestos, even if the tiles themselves don’t.

What Colors Are Asbestos Tiles?

Asbestos tiles can appear in any color or pattern on the surface. Underneath, vinyl flooring containing asbestos material might show dark or oily stains. This happens because the oils from the asphalt mixed into the tiles can leak out over time.

However, dark spots on tiles can also be from other issues like mold. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advises not to touch or disturb damaged flooring until a professional checks it. If the tiles are still in good shape, the chance of asbestos being dangerous is low.

Are They Dangerous?

Asbestos tiles are not inherently dangerous if they remain undisturbed. The risk arises when the tiles are damaged, causing asbestos fibers to be released into the air. 

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  • Asbestos ceiling tiles are known to be friable, which means they can crumble easily and release asbestos fibers into the air. If these tiles are disturbed, for instance, by falling or being crushed, they may emit dangerous fibers. People who produced or worked with asbestos ceiling tiles might have been at risk of exposure.
  • Asbestos floor tiles are typically non-friable, making them less likely to break down under pressure and release asbestos fibers. However, studies show that activities like grinding, breaking, or cutting asbestos floor tiles can release fibers into the environment.

Here are some factors that can lead to the increased release of fibers from asbestos-containing materials:

  • Physical damage from drilling, grinding, or cutting can break down the material and release fibers.
  • Water damage can also break the tiles, making fibers more likely to be released.
  • Natural aging can cause the tiles to become friable, meaning they can crumble easily.
  • Continuous shaking or vibration of the tiles can cause wear and release fibers.

Who May Be at Risk of Asbestos Exposure from Tiles?

  • Workers who handled ceiling products containing asbestos often used in public buildings like schools, universities, warehouses, and hospitals. These tiles were typically installed in areas like kitchens and basements to conceal ductwork.
  • People in buildings with asbestos floor tiles, which were installed in homes, commercial buildings, and institutions such as schools and churches. These tiles were commonly placed in areas with heavy foot traffic, including cafeterias, gyms, and libraries.
  • Maintenance staff working in buildings with asbestos floor or ceiling tiles could be exposed to asbestos, making maintenance an occupation with potential asbestos risks.
  • Teachers, principals, or any staff working in buildings with asbestos tiles might have been exposed to asbestos fibers, especially during renovations or repairs.
  • Homeowners are at risk if they install, repair, or renovate asbestos-containing tiles. This risk is still present today when older homes with original tiles undergo remodeling.

How to Remove Them Safely?

When dealing with asbestos tiles in older homes, especially during repairs or renovations, it’s crucial to remove them safely. Asbestos fibers can become airborne during the removal process, which is hazardous. Here’s a simple guide to safe removal practices:

removing asbestos tiles
  1. Protect the area: Use plastic sheets to cover any surfaces under the ceiling tiles to catch any dust or debris. For floor tiles, seal off the room completely and turn off any air handling systems to prevent the spread of fibers.
  1. Use Personal protective equipmentThose removing the tiles should wear protective gear, including full-body disposable coveralls and a respirator that effectively filters asbestos fibers.
  1. Wet the tiles: Before and during removal, keep the tiles moist to reduce the amount of dust that can become airborne.
  1. Vacuum with care: Use a vacuum equipped with a HEPA filter to clean up any particles or dust generated during the removal process. This type of vacuum is specifically designed to capture fine asbestos fibers.
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