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Asbestos In Linoleum

It is common to find asbestos in linoleum flooring that was manufactured throughout the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s.  The high tensile strength of asbestos fibers adds significantly to the strength and durability of finished linoleum at a low cost, which made it a very popular choice.  Of course, the health risks of using asbestos in linoleum wasn’t well known until the Environmental Protection Agency enacted strict controls on the substance in the mid-80s.

It should be noted that the term linoleum, though commonly used to describe modern flooring, is often a misnomer.  Modern flooring is generally made of vinyl (polyvinyl-chloride to be more specific), rather than true linoleum.  Genuine linoleum is made of plasticized linseed oil, mixed with ground cork or sawdust,  with an organic backing material such as cloth or burlap.  It would be very rare to actually find asbestos in linoleum, whereas finding asbestos in vinyl flooring materials is quite common.  Because real linoleum has fallen out of popularity, however, the term has come to be used as a generic term for any similar flooring material.

Asbestos in linoleum floors poses relatively little risk to humans, as the fibers are securely encapsulated by the plastic of the flooring material.  Danger of exposure to the asbestos fibers occurs mostly during remodeling and demolition.  The highest concentration of asbestos in vinyl sheet flooring, for example, is in the papery backing material, which is likely to release dust particles when removed from the subfloor.  For this reason, flooring suspected of containing asbestos should generally be left alone as long as it is still in good condition.

New flooring sheets or tiles can generally be safely laid over existing flooring materials that have an acceptable surface for bonding.  If the surface requires scarification (usually accomplished through sanding), the risk of releasing the asbestos in the linoleum flooring is drastically increased.  In such cases, it is imperative to have the original flooring material tested first to ensure that it can be safely scarified.  Also, covering asbestos flooring materials with new flooring is essentially just delaying the inevitable–the asbestos linoleum will eventually require proper removal by abatement professionals.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to reliably identify asbestos in linoleum flooring by sight.  When the age and/or composition of the linoleum is unknown, follow the common-sense guidelines of the EPA:

If in doubt, treat the material as if it contains asbestos or have it sampled and analyzed by a qualified professional.

Do your best to avoid disturbing the flooring, and do not disturb, damage, or remove the material.  Attempting to remove the flooring without following strict safety protocols will likely make matters worse than simply doing nothing at all.