Asbestos tiles were a popular choice for ceilings and flooring in the past, but it is no longer in use in modern construction. Why did the material lose its allure and what should you do if you live in a home with asbestos tiles?
Asbestos was a popular construction material in the past due to its overall durability and heat-resistance. However, its hazardous nature led to a ban in the 1980s after it was proven to cause ailments. People living with asbestos tiles have to cover it up or get it removed professionally.
Do you live in an older home and worried about the presence of asbestos around? This article will cover everything you need to know, including identifying asbestos tiles and the testing and removal process.
What Type of Homes Are Likely to Have Asbestos?
In the US, any homes built before 1980 may contain asbestos. The laws banning the material didn’t come into effect fully until the mid-1980s.
However, the speed of adoption for the ban varied across different states, so it may be best to treat any properties built before 1990 as possibly containing asbestos.
You may find asbestos tiles in the ceiling and flooring, roof shingles, and around steam pipes. In places where the tiles are used, the contractors may have also used asbestos spray-on insulation.
What Are the Health Problems Caused by Asbestos?
There are a few health issues associated with the presence of asbestos in an environment. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that asbestos will only pose a risk if the material is friable, which means that it can crumble and release asbestos fibers into the air in the environment.
The health problems caused by asbestos mostly arise as a result of inhalation. When the fibers are inhaled, they get into the lungs but don’t break down, leading to a range of illnesses. Some of the main ailments associated with such exposure include:
- Lung Cancer: Lung cancer is responsible for the bulk of deaths that can be traced to asbestos exposure. Some of the symptoms associated with lung cancer include coughing, constant chest pains, anemia, and shortness of breath.
- Asbestosis: Asbestosis is a chronic but non-cancerous disease of the respiratory system caused by inhaling asbestos fibers. The inhaled elements aggravate the tissues of the lungs, causing them to scar. Some of the main symptoms of this condition include a dry crackling sound in the lungs when breathing and shortness of breath. As the disease progresses, it can lead to cardiac failure.
- Mesothelioma: Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that affects the thin membrane lining of the chest, abdomen, lungs, and heart (rare cases). In the US, mesothelioma is one of the leading causes of deaths related to asbestos exposure. It killed around 45,000 people between 1999 and 2015. Presently, around 3,000 people are diagnosed with the condition every year.
So, before you proceed on that DIY renovation project to demolish floors, ceilings, or insulation, you should take a step back to confirm that you won’t expose yourself to inhaling asbestos fibers.
Factors That Increase the Risk of Asbestos-Related Disease
There are a few things that can influence the possibility of developing an asbestos-related disease:
- Disturbing the asbestos. As we’ve seen above, asbestos mostly causes disease when the fibers spread in the air you inhale. This means engaging in anything that can lead to the spread of the fibers, such as tearing, sawing, and drilling increases the risk of disease. We’ll discuss the safe removal of asbestos later in this article.
- Length of exposure. Extended exposure to asbestos means you’re allowing more fiber to enter your respiratory system, thus increasing the likelihood of developing an asbestos-related disease.
- Smoking habits. It’s common knowledge that smoking weakens the respiratory system. Exposure to asbestos fibers is more likely to cause diseases in smokers (with the already compromised system).
- Age. Younger people inhaling asbestos have a higher risk of developing diseases like mesothelioma. This is why a lot of sensitization in this subject focuses on ensuring that children of school age are not exposed to this element.
Asbestos Tiles in Basement
If you live in an older property where the basement flooring is made of asbestos tiles, you may be conflicted on what to do in this scenario. Should you lock away the basement permanently or spend money to have the flooring removed?
The best approach to take with old asbestos tiles in your basement is to leave it alone and cover the floor up with another type of flooring. This way, you can ensure the tiles won’t get damaged and release fibers into the air.
A rubber-based carpet pad is typically recommended, but you can also choose to go with ceramic tiles, vinyl flooring, and linoleum. This way, you’ll keep the asbestos intact and safely locked away as the years roll by. However, if you sell the property or move out, you have to properly communicate the floor’s situation to the new occupants. This way, they won’t unknowingly rip out the flooring.
Asbestos Ceiling Tiles
Asbestos may also be found in your ceiling tiles. The material was also commonly used in making the adhesives used to glue ceiling tiles in older properties. Generally, asbestos ceiling tiles are not friable. However, they are usually soft enough to release asbestos fibers and dust particles once disturbed. How can you differentiate asbestos ceiling tiles from other types of materials?
- Pay attention to the material. If you can’t immediately determine if the ceiling tile is asbestos by looking at it, analyze the tile to see if it’s made of other materials. For example, fiberglass is easy to identify. If the ceiling is homogeneously made of fiberglass, it’s unlikely to contain asbestos unless it’s been contaminated by asbestos from other sources.
- Look for manufacturer stamps or other such data. A stamp on the back of the tile, leftover tiles, or packaging can give you clues as to whether the tiles contain asbestos or not. You may also watch out for statements that show adherence to laws made during an era when asbestos was still popularly used in projects.
- Check the age of the building. If it was built in the 90s or later, there is a high chance that you’re not looking at asbestos ceiling tiles. With properties built in the 80s or earlier, you need to exercise more caution.
- Check the age of the ceiling. If you can find renovation records for the ceilings, pay attention to the dates. If it was last renovated before the 80s, there’s a high chance you’re looking at asbestos ceiling tiles.
- Testing: If you can’t identify the ceiling material from the steps above and can’t remove it without potentially exposing everyone nearby to asbestos fibers, the most definitive way to prove the material is to arrange for a sample of the ceiling to be tested.
What Do Asbestos Floor/Ceiling Tiles Look Like?
If the ceiling tile is gray or white all through and manufactured before 1986 (for the US), there is a high chance it contains asbestos. Ceilings that are wood-fiber or plant-based and those showing yellow coloration are mostly made of fiberglass or wood. So, if you have old, white, or grey ceiling tiles, you should treat them as potential asbestos materials and confirm the situation with a test.
With floor tiles, the first sign of asbestos is the stained or oily appearance. This is because asphalt, which is the main ingredient used in making the tiles, degrades over time, giving the tiles a discolored or grimy appearance.
Additionally, if the floor tiles are 18-inch, 9-inch, or 12-inch squares, there’s a high chance that it’s asbestos. These dimensions, especially the 9-inch by 9-inch, were very popular when asbestos tiles were commonly installed in homes.
Asbestos floor tiles also tend to have some thick, black adhesive underneath known as black mastic, so if you see these signs in areas where the flooring has come off, that’s a clear indication of the kind of floor tiles you’ve got. In some cases, the floor tiles won’t contain asbestos, but this adhesive will most likely contain the element.
If you can’t find any of the visual descriptions discussed above for both floor and ceiling tiles, but your home was built between 1920 and 1960, there’s a high chance your floor and ceiling will contain asbestos. Most flooring and ceiling tiles manufactured within this period had asbestos. Between 1960 and 1980, the usage has started to fall as discussions around the health risks posed by the material were louder.
What to Do With Asbestos Tiles?
After you’ve found asbestos tiles on your floor or ceiling, it’s time to decide the best thing to do in the scenario. The two main options available to you are either to leave the tiles undisturbed in their current position or to have them removed.
Leaving the Tiles Untouched
Leaving asbestos tiles undisturbed is easy because they are thin enough to allow new flooring or ceiling materials installed over them. With floor tiles, you won’t have to worry about elevated floor height if you install laminate, vinyl, or engineered wood. You can also install stone, slate, or ceramic tiles on the floor once you’ve installed a fiber-cement backer. If you choose to leave the tiles, here are some points you should keep in mind.
Watch for Signs of Damage First
Look closely at the tiles to be sure there’s no hidden damage. If the integrity of the pieces is still intact, it means you’re dealing with non-friable asbestos. If there’s some damage already, it’s best to rethink leaving the tiles in place. Signs of damage on an asbestos tile include frayed edges, deep cuts and scratches, and broken corners or pieces.
Avoid Breaking the Tile
If you’ve ascertained that there’s no damage to the asbestos tiles, you should focus on keeping it that way, even when you choose to cover up the tiles with new flooring or ceiling materials.
Damaging the tiles might still lead to a gradual release of fibers into the air, depending on the type of material you’ve used in covering the tiles up. You can reduce the chances of such exposure by applying primers or other such solutions, but it’s always best to prevent the problem at the source.
Removing the Asbestos Tile
If you have found damage to the asbestos tiles, it’s best to remove them. Even when there’s no damage, it’s not uncommon to find homeowners that don’t want to have these materials in the home, even when they are non-friable.
Before you choose to remove the tiles, however, you should consider what the laws in your state say about them. Some jurisdictions make it illegal to remove the asbestos, while others allow homeowners to carry out the removal.
The best way to handle the problem is to call in a contractor experienced in asbestos remediation to remove the old tiles. You should expect to pay around $6-10 for every square foot to be removed. The exact prices will come down to where you live, the steps required by local laws to protect the rest of the house and the immediate environment, and the state of the tiles.
While it is highly advisable to engage an experienced contractor to perform the work, if your jurisdiction allows self-removal, you can expect to spend less. The bulk of your expenses will go towards buying disposal bags designed for asbestos and paying for the disposal of the hazardous debris from the demolished floor tile.
The fee you’ll pay for the disposal will range from $35 to $75, depending on where you look. If you choose to go the DIY route, here are some pointers you should keep in mind. NB: These tips are for removing asbestos floor tiles, but the same principles generally apply even with ceiling tiles.
Wear Protective Clothing
You need disposable coveralls and a dust mask when working with asbestos. As discussed above, the diseases caused by the material occur when you breathe in the airborne fibers. The mask or respirator ensures you won’t inhale fibers that will get airborne as you work, while the coveralls ensure your clothing won’t be covered in asbestos dust that you’ll spread elsewhere in your home.
Make the Tile Wet
Before you start removing the asbestos tile, you should make the floor wet first. This way, the fibers released as you work will be kept in by the water and not released into the air. Keep some water handy to ensure the area remains wet while you work.
Work From the Edge
You should start the removal process from the edge of the floor. Use a hammer or chisel to deal with mortar or grout to free the tile you’ve started with at the edge from others around it. For sheet flooring, you should gently loosen it using a scraper. You can get external help to pull up the rest of the floor with ease once loose.
Avoid Damaging the Tiles
If you don’t want asbestos fiber to fill the air during the removal process, you should work carefully to ensure as little damage as possible to the tiles as you work. Don’t break them to pieces. Instead, use your hammer and chisel to lift the tile from the bottom first, and gently remove them one at a time.
Dissolve the Leftover Adhesive
The adhesive used to hold the tiles to the floor will typically contain asbestos. Don’t grind or sand it away. Instead, you should dissolve it using soap, water, and an organic solvent such as lacquer thinner.
Dispose of the Tiles Properly
Once you’re done removing the asbestos tiles, carefully place them in plastic trash bags. These should be contractor bags that have double layers as the tiles will tear through the standard bags. The fibers won’t be able to seep through the plastic. You may need up to a dozen bags, depending on the size of the space you’ve worked on. Don’t overfill the bags to avoid leaving any tears.
When the bag is full, seal it off to reduce the chances of asbestos fibers escaping. You can use duct tape to ensure the top remains closed without any openings. If tears occur, double the bag or seal off the torn area with duct tape immediately.
Wipe down the exterior of the bag with soap and water as some dust may have settled on it. This may not be the case if you made the floor wet enough, but it doesn’t hurt to make sure there’s no residue on the bag. This way, you won’t inhale the dust when you’re transporting the bags to the dumping facility.
Dispose of the Bags
Once you’ve properly collected the bags containing the asbestos tiles to be disposed of, it’s time to move them to the agreed disposal facility. It could be your local landfill or a private hazardous waste handling enterprise. Don’t forget to discard your coveralls and other protective gear used for the project as well.
Testing For Asbestos: What You Need to Know
If you’ve tried to identify asbestos with the methods described above but still unsure of the material, the next thing to do is get a sample for testing in an EPA -certified lab. Getting the sample for the lab requires caution, and in some states, it may be illegal to remove the sample on your own. You’ll need to leave the sample removal and testing to contractors certified by the EPA.
If you reside in a jurisdiction where gathering samples on your own is allowed, you can buy the testing kit and follow the tips we’ll discuss below strictly. The Schneider Labs Asbestos Test Kit 1 is a good kit option to go with. You’ll also need the following tools to get the job done:
- Protective gear (masks, rubber gloves, shoe covers, coveralls)
- Utility knife
- Garbage bags
- Disposable paint brush
- Microfiber cloth
- Packing tape
- Wet wipes
- Ziplock plastic bags (freezer grade)
- Spray bottle
- Permanent marker
Once you’ve gathered these supplies, it’s time to get to work. Here are tips to follow:
Don’t Disrupt the Sample Area
You don’t need to clean the floor or ceiling tile area from where you’re taking the sample. If there’s asbestos dust on the surface, you’ll only end up spreading it around. You should also make sure there’s still air within the room to ensure microscopic fibers don’t become airborne. This means turning off all systems that can circulate air, including your air conditioner, heater, and fan.
Wear Some Protection
Wear the gloves, coverall, shoe cover, and mask before you start the process. Remember, you won’t reuse these items again, so it’s best to go with disposables all around. If you need extra help during the process, make sure your partner is dressed for the job.
Cover the Immediate Area With Plastic Sheets and Wet the Surface
The plastic sheeting will be able to catch any asbestos dust that might settle around the work area. The wet surface will also reduce the possibility of any dust generated during the testing process to become airborne.
Remove the Material Carefully
At this stage, you should work calmly to reduce the risk of generating asbestos dust. Use the utility or chisel knife to remove some of the tiles you’d like to verify. The weight of the sample should be between 5-100 grams. Once the sample is removed, spray it with water to keep it from releasing fibers. You should also spray the air in the room.
Transfer the Material to the Ziplock Bag
Using the wet wipes, protect the pliers’ tips, and use them to pick up the wet sample carefully. Place the sample into the plastic zip-lock bag. Covering the plier with wet wipes ensures microscopic asbestos fibers won’t stick.
Seal the Bag and Label
Locking the bag is enough to seal it. Once sealed, you should use a marker to indicate all the necessary information in legible writing. You should include the date of collecting the sample, the address where it was taken, and the content of the sample. Place the bag in another zip-lock bag to ensure it remains secure. Spray the air around you with the water mist again to make sure the dust settles.
Dispose of the Plastic Sheet and Vacuum
Roll up the plastic sheet you laid out earlier above, and get rid of it in a plastic trash bag. Fold in the top of the bag and tape it properly to keep in any fibers. Vacuum the area thoroughly. Swap out the vacuum bag carefully when you’re done and throw the old one into another trash bag. You should tape off the bag as well.
If your vacuum doesn’t feature a bag, put the dust container inside a trash bag and tap out everything. Get a damp rag to wipe it down and dispose of the rag in the plastic trash bag with the dust collected. You can be double sure by going over the canister with some wet wipes after cleaning with a rag.
Clean and Paint the Area
Clean the whole work environment and nearby surfaces where the asbestos may have reached with wet rags, and then carefully dispose of the rags like the others in a plastic bag taped off properly. To cover the area from where you collected the sample, go over it thoroughly with a thick coat of paint. It doesn’t matter what type.
When the paint dries off, it will keep any asbestos fibers within the sample area from coming off and becoming airborne. Once done, get rid of the brush carefully like everything else we’ve discussed here thus far.
Dispose of your protective gear carefully in the same manner as well. Get them into a trash bag carefully, ideally before you clean the space you worked in. All the dirt generated in this process should be disposed of properly, either in a landfill that accepts asbestos materials or in a hazardous waste facility.
Send the Sample Collected to a Certified Lab
You’ll find a list of asbestos testing labs certified by the EPA to send your sample on the National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program website. When you find a lab, follow the instructions provided to submit your sample.
You should be prepared to wait for at least three weeks for a reply. This is the timeframe for samples submitted by homeowners, so plan around this timeline if you’re testing the sample for renovation purposes. If professionals duly certified by the EPA collected the samples, you can expect the results to be ready in 48 hours.
If the sample returns a positive test for asbestos, it’s time to think about the removal process. We’ve covered how to remove asbestos on your own above. However, for large or commercial spaces, it’s always safer to hire professionals. Remember, some states may also frown against removing asbestos on your own, even in a small residential environment. Find out what the laws say around you to avoid incurring heavy fines.
Asbestos served a purpose in the past due to its heat resistance and durability. However, the evidence of its toxicity came to light around 1899 and triggered more research. In the 1980s, the material was finally blacklisted. Still, the pervasive use of asbestos before the bans means that almost any old home will have some of it.
If you have any reasons to worry about the presence of asbestos in your home, call in a professional to test the suspected materials. If the tests confirm the presence of asbestos, explore your options.
- Wikihow: How to Deal with Asbestos Tile
- EPA: How do I know if I have asbestos in my home (in floor tile, ceiling tile, shingles, siding, etc.)?
- Inspectapedia: Asbestos-Ceiling Tiles 6 Easy Steps to tell if CEILING TILES are likely to contain asbestos
- Oregon State University: When is Asbestos Dangerous?
- This Old House: Asbestos Floor Tiles: Safe to Remove?
- Bob Vila: All You Need to Know About Asbestos Floor Tiles
- Bob Vila: How To: Test for Asbestos
- Asbestos: Asbestos Floor Tile: Is It Safe to Remove on Your Own?
- The Spruce: Identifying and Treating Asbestos Tiles in the Home
- Mold Busters: Asbestos in Tiles
- HazTrainer: Asbestos Floor Tiles – Must Know Safety Information
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