Identifying and Treating Asbestos Tiles in the Home

Asbestos Vinyl Tile Flooring
Getty / Hisham Ibrahim

Many older homes have asbestos tiles for flooring. As time goes by and more homes are remodeled, fewer homes contain asbestos tiles. But if you have a home built before the mid-20th century, there is a good chance that the floor tiles contain asbestos.

What Are Asbestos Floor Tiles? 

For about 35 years, flooring companies included asbestos when they manufactured the vinyl tiles. Asbestos is a mineral that lends fireproofing qualities to any substance it is mixed with. But the flooring companies' aim wasn't so much to make the floor tiles fireproof as it was to make the tiles more durable. Another draw was the appearance: some asbestos tiles had the texture of a hand-crafted stone-chip design.

Asbestos vinyl floor tiles were far from rare. Asbestos tiles were popular, widely advertised products found in all parts of the U.S. at the time.

Identifying Asbestos Tile Flooring

By Date

If the flooring was installed between 1952 and 1986, your vinyl flooring might contain asbestos. 

By Location

Since asbestos tiles are highly durable, they were installed in high traffic areas such as kitchens, hallways, and mudrooms.

By Brand Name

Armstrong, Congoleum-Nairn, Ever-Wear, KenTile, KenFlex, Montgomery Ward, and Sears & Roebuck are some of the brand names of vinyl tile from that period that might contain asbestos.

Because floor tiles are not imprinted with brand names, look for previous owners' documentation or for excess tiles left by the installers. Extra tiles are often tucked away in unusual locations, such as the triangular storage area below basement stairs, work sheds, crawlspaces, attics, or on high shelves in closets.

By Looking Underneath Other Flooring

One method of dealing with the asbestos problem was—and still is—to cover the asbestos floor tiles with a second layer of flooring. This effectively encapsulates the asbestos and renders it safe, as long as it is not disturbed. 

As long as the asbestos tiles are solid, you can cover them with sheet vinyl, luxury vinyl plank, laminate, engineered wood, solid hardwood, or just about any other type of flooring. If the tiles are not solid, you can insert an intervening sheet of underlayment: thin luan wood or cement board.

The presence of one type of floor covering another type of flooring does not necessarily mean that the lower flooring has asbestos. Often, covering over other flooring is done out of convenience: to avoid demolition.

By Lab Testing

Lab testing is a far better option than trying to identify asbestos-containing tiles yourself.

Local testing labs will test your vinyl tile for reasonable fees. To get an entire home tested for asbestos might cost in the hundreds of dollars. But to test an individual sample of vinyl tile, if mailed or dropped off at the facility, will cost between $50 and $100. For the lab to come to your house and take the sample, you can triple the price.

Taking a sample usually involves little more than safely cutting out a one-inch square of the vinyl tile in question and sealing it up a bag for mailing.

Treating or Removing Asbestos Tile Flooring

Should you be worried if you have vinyl tiles that contain asbestos? As long as the tiles are not disturbed in any way—removed, sanded, cut—there is little need for concern. Only by disturbing the tiles will the asbestos fibers be released into the air. If at all possible, leave the tiles intact and avoid removing them.

In some instances, you may want to remove your asbestos tiles before installing another type of flooring. One notable instance is if you plan to restore the wood flooring underneath the asbestos vinyl tile. This is a highly invasive project that will break up and scatter asbestos fibers, so you need to take the highest level of caution.

Seal the work area, protectively suit yourself up, and remove the asbestos tiles while keeping them as intact as possible. This can be difficult with older asbestos tiles, which will be stiff, brittle, and friable, not flexible.

You can easily install ceramic or porcelain tile, laminate flooring, and solid hardwood or engineered wood over asbestos vinyl tile, without removing the vinyl flooring first.

Any kind of grouted tile can be installed directly on the tile (do not sand down the asbestos tiles first, as is customary with this type of installation). Install a cement backer board first. For laminate flooring, you may wish to smooth out the surface by first installing a thin plywood underlayment. Hardwood or engineered wood flooring may be installed directly on the vinyl flooring.