The Dangers of Asbestos Floor Covering
The Ancient Greeks were the first recorded civilization to use asbestos to make clothing, fondly calling it the "miracle mineral." Since then, asbestos has been used for a variety of applications, including automobile brake and clutch assemblies, insulation and ventilation systems, roofing materials, ceiling tiles, vinyl floor tiles, and even glue or mastic for a variety of construction materials.
It's estimated that between 1900 and 1970, approximately 30 million tons of asbestos were used in construction in the United States. Much of this asbestos still exists in our homes, schools, and office buildings.
The Dangers of Asbestos
Asbestos has been known to produce tumors in animals as well as mesothelioma (a type of cancer) in people. Mesothelioma is a cancer of the mesothelium, the lining that covers the majority of the internal organs. Symptoms include shortness of breath, fatigue, abdominal pain, weight loss and chest pain.
Most mesothelioma cases were caused by airborne exposure to asbestos as a result of sanding or scraping the fibers. Any activity that causes asbestos to be released into the air, breathed in and/or absorbed through the skin is believed to be extremely harmful. Even secondhand contact with asbestos – such as washing the clothes of others who worked with the mineral – has proved to be fatal.
Asbestos poisoning symptoms can go unnoticed for years. It was suspected in the early 1900s that asbestos might pose significant health risks, but asbestos was so easily attainable and had such a wide range of uses that its popularity continued for decades.
Is Asbestos still used in the United States today?
Asbestos was banned in nearly all manufacturing and imports in the U.S. by 1978. Although the ban was eventually overturned in court, in the years leading up to the ban most U.S. manufacturers had already found and implemented substitute materials that were equally effective and much safer. It is generally accepted that any homes built after 1980 should be free of asbestos, but this is not always the case.
"How do I know if my home contains asbestos?"
It may be difficult to determine on your own. Types of flooring that could contain asbestos include vinyl flooring made prior to 1980, and asphalt floor tiles made between 1920-1960.
One of the most common types of flooring in use today that may contain asbestos is V.C.T. (vinyl composite tile). This type of flooring almost always comes in 12" x 12" squares and was most commonly used in grocery stores and large retail stores. However, it can still be found in older homes around the country.
It's highly recommended that you hire a trained asbestos professional to help you locate any asbestos in your home through thorough testing.
"I'm just replacing my kitchen floor. Why is this important to me?"
The flooring industry, like many others, continues a self-imposed ban on the use of asbestos in their products, but that doesn't mean we no longer need to be concerned. If your home was built before 1980 there is a good chance you may have asbestos in your home. If your floor contains asbestos, improper removal could result in the release of harmful levels of asbestos which could endanger yours and your children's health.
"Should I only be concerned about asbestos if my home was built before 1980?"
Even after the use of asbestos in manufacturing was banned, many retail stores purchased large quantities of closeout flooring materials containing asbestos at substantial discounts – and continued to sell them for years without warning the consumer! By now, most of this inventory has likely been sold or disposed of, but the possibility that it may have been installed in the last decade or two still exists.
"Why can't I tear out my own floor? It's only my health I'm risking."
In addition to the health risks already discussed, in many states it is illegal to disturb asbestos, even in your own home. This is because asbestos is believed to only be a true danger when airborne. Asbestos dust can remain in air ducts, carpet fibers, curtains and other nooks and crannies for years after the remodel has been completed. This causes prolonged exposure for your family or even the next family to live in your home. Illnesses caused by exposure to asbestos can stay dormant for up to 20 years.
"If I suspect my home or business has asbestos in the flooring, what can I do about it?"
Before removing flooring or demolishing a room or building, it's always a good idea to send a sample of the material being removed to a qualified professional. An asbestos professional is trained in identifying and handling asbestos. When hiring an asbestos consultant, verify his/her credentials to make sure they have been properly trained and certified by the federal government.
"My old floor has asbestos! Now what?"
First of all, don't panic! If your home has asbestos in the floor covering, or the adhesive used to fasten it, it usually does not pose a significant threat if left undisturbed. The real danger lies in removing your old floor covering by sanding, scraping or otherwise removing the material while dry.
Often it is possible to lay the new flooring right over the existing flooring as long as it is securely fastened. If the old flooring does have to be removed, there are certified "asbestos abatement contractors" who specialize in removing and disposing of the hazardous material in a safe manner. When it comes to commercial buildings, this is usually your only legal option.
Many states offer guidelines and instructions for homeowners who want to remove asbestos from their homes without the help of a professional. In fact, some states allow homeowners to remove asbestos materials themselves, so long as it's in accordance with the regulations set forth by the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP).
Check with your local flooring retailer, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) office to confirm the legal situation in your state before you begin your flooring project.