If you’re working on a house built before 1978, and you’re renovating floors, you need to pay attention to the tile. You’re not being paranoid if you ask a question like, “Is this vinyl tile asbestos?”
While it’s impossible to answer the question for certain, there are guidelines to follow.
How asbestos ended up in houses
For decades we mixed asbestos into everything because it’s fireproof, durable, and cheap. Some people thought it was the miracle substance of the century. Alas, it was too good to be true.
As early as 1898, British researchers expressed concerns about its health hazards. Yet we didn’t stop using it in flooring until the late 1970s. Yes, we used it for about 80 years even though we knew better. Or at least the British knew better.
In houses of a certain age, you can expect to find asbestos insulation in the attic, asbestos siding on the outside walls, and asbestos floor tiles in the kitchen, basement, and/or bathrooms.
Is this vinyl tile asbestos?
The only way to know for certain if a floor tile contains asbestos is to have it tested. That said, the general convention is that floor tiles 9×9 inches square usually do contain asbestos. Floor tiles 12×12 inches square usually do not. The glue holding the tiles to the floor can also contain asbestos.
Arguably, the glue presents more danger than the tiles. It’s harder to remove the glue without releasing asbestos into the air than the tiles.
What to do about asbestos
The safest thing to do with asbestos is to just leave it alone. Lay plywood down on top of it and put a new floor right over it. Or put a floating floor right on top of it. Asbestos is only dangerous when its particles are airborne. As long as you’re not drilling into it, scraping it, or sanding it, no particles are getting into the air.
You can lay peel-and-stick vinyl on top of old asbestos tiles. Only do this if the tiles are in good condition and well-stuck to the floor and the room has no moisture problems. The danger is that if you ever come back and remove the new vinyl, you’ll probably disturb the tiles underneath them as well. A safer bet is to install a floating floor over it, or lay down plywood and start over new. If the floor is in poor condition, a floating floor or plywood is the best option.
It’s important to remember that asbestos exposure is cumulative. Just because the sight of it didn’t kill you instantly doesn’t mean it’s safe. Abating it properly is a way of treating the other human beings who will be near it with the respect they deserve.
What to do with an asbestos floor with a few missing tiles
What if you have an asbestos floor that’s in reasonably good condition but missing a random tile here and there? You’ll never match it. If you’d rather repair it than cover it, about the best you can do is try to find a modern heavy-duty vinyl tile in a color and design that doesn’t clash too badly with what you have. Cut it down to 9×9, then stick it down to replace the missing tile. It won’t look quite right, but it will look better than a hole in the floor. And filling in the hole makes it less likely that other tiles will pop up.
Regulations vary. In some states, homeowners can remove asbestos themselves, though just throwing it in the trash is always illegal. If you’re bound and determined to remove asbestos from your house, check with your local government on what the regulations are. If a professional comes in to remove the asbestos and clean the air, you can expect it to cost a few thousand dollars.
That’s why I prefer the idea of installing a floating floor or putting down plywood and starting over. A thousand bucks doesn’t get you much asbestos removal but it buys a lot of really nice floor.