What Are the Dangers of Asbestos Floor Tiles?

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Asbestos floor tiles were commonly used in the U.S. from the 1920s through the 1960s. Floor tiles from that era, often black or dark in color, may contain up to 70 percent asbestos, according to InspectApedia.com. Asbestos does not become dangerous unless it breaks up and becomes airborne. Inhaled asbestos dust can cause lung cancer or mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs, heart or abdomen. In the late 1980s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned most uses of asbestos, but manufacturing companies sued and the rule was overturned in 1991. However, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) tightened asbestos exposure rules in 1994 and its use has largely fallen out of favor.

What is Asbestos

  • Asbestos is a naturally-occurring, heat-resistant mineral, according to OSHA. It is quite fibrous and can be separated into long strands. Amphibole and chrysotile are the two main types of asbestos. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, amphibole fibers stay in the lungs longer and may be more toxic than chrysotile fibers.

Why Was It Used?

  • Asbestos had qualities that made it desirable as a floor tile, before there was widespread knowledge of its dangers. It was heat- and fire-resistant and did not scratch or stain easily, making it durable. Asbestos tile absorbs sound and does not conduct electricity, so it was good for both commercial and residential construction. The cost to manufacture asbestos floor tiles also was low, an attractive selling point for consumers. Because asbestos was legal, floor tiles manufactured up until the 1980s may contain it.

Asbestos & Cancer

  • The EPA and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services have classified asbestos fiber as a human carcinogen. When asbestos dust is inhaled, the tiny fibers become trapped in the lungs. Over time, these fibers can cause scarring and inflammation that affect breathing and create other health difficulties, according to the National Cancer Institute. Some studies also suggest a link between asbestos and gastrointestinal cancers.

Removal

  • The asbestos in floor tiles is encapsulated so if you live in a home with this type of flooring, you do not run a higher risk of cancer. However, when tiles are broken, often during removal, asbestos dust gets into the air and can be inhaled. Because asbestos tile is strong, removing it often causes breakage. Even the glue used to adhere the tile to the floor can have asbestos in it and should never be sanded. Experts recommend asbestos tile be covered with another layer of flooring rather than removed. However, if you decide to remove it, consult a professional to avoid asbestos contamination of your home.

Facts

  • Asbestos was used in the construction of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York. When it collapsed after the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, first responders were exposed to tons of airborne asbestos dust, putting them at higher risk of respiratory-related illnesses. Ancient Romans knew about asbestos' fire-resistant qualities and archaeological digs in Scandinavia have found asbestos in pottery and log home insulation dating to 3000 B.C. The first documented asbestos death was in 1906 when an asbestos worker's autopsy revealed lung abnormalities. Companies knew long before the U.S. government intervened that asbestos was harmful. A report written in 1930 by Johns-Manville, a major asbestos manufacturer, documented asbestos fatalities among workers.

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  • Photo Credit Photo courtesy of Asbestorama
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