Vinyl floor and ceiling tiles were popular in American private homes and public buildings from the 1950s to the 1970s. During those three decades, builders installed millions of square feet of tile in a rainbow of colors. Vinyl floor and ceiling tiles were immensely popular but, by the 1980s, they fell out of favor. That's because almost all of this pretty tile contained lethal amounts of asbestos fibers.
Manufacturers added asbestos fibers to vinyl resins during tile production. Tile underlay and adhesives also contained high percentages of asbestos materials. At the time, it seemed to make good sense to use asbestos materials in floor and ceiling tile manufacturing. Asbestos was naturally fireproof, which appeared to make buildings safer.
Adding asbestos to vinyl floor tile surfaces and backings significantly increased their strength. Asbestos was a silicate mineral and practically indestructible. Asbestos tiles stood up in high traffic areas nearly as well as ceramic and stone tiles. Most asbestos tiles had glossy surfaces making them easy to clean and maintain.
Tiles with asbestos-containing materials (ACM) had additional benefits. Asbestos made tiles weigh far less than straight petroleum-asphalt tiles. This decreased weight made the tile boxes lighter and lessened shipping and handling issues. Adding asbestos to tile materials gave them excellent insulating qualities which reduced heat loss and gain in ceilings and floors. Sound absorption was another plus from using ACM in tiles. Asbestos was a widely available additive, it was stable to add during tile manufacturing, and raw asbestos materials were economical to buy.
Asbestos-Containing Materials in Tiles
Because asbestos is a natural stone-based material, asbestos fibers gave the appearance of stone chips in the exposed finish. This addition gave the asbestos tiles an elegant look. One TV commercial from 1965 advertised Armstrong Excelon floor tiles as “vinyl-asbestos tiles with the beauty and texture of a hand-crafted stone-chip design.” Armstrong went on to sell millions of one-square-foot tiles that installers placed in homes, schools and hospitals across America.
Most ACM floor tiles contained a blend of chrysotile and amosite asbestos fibers. Some tiles contained up to 50 percent of asbestos materials. Chrysotile and amosite served two different purposes. Chrysotile fibers come from the serpentine asbestos class while amosite is part of the amphibole group. Chrysotile asbestos was more readily available and less costly than amosite, so it was used to give tiles strength, make them fireproof and reduce weight as well as blocking sound and controlling heat. Amosite fibers gave asbestos-based tiles their stone-chip look.
Ceiling tiles also contained asbestos fibers, but they were mostly chrysotile as the stone look wasn’t desired on ceilings. Many ceiling tiles had the “popcorn” effect. That raised the number of asbestos fibers to as much as 80 percent. Not only were asbestos ceiling tiles light, but they were excellent for insulation and soundproofing.
Asbestos Tiles and Health Risks from Exposure
There were many warnings about health risks from asbestos exposure as early as the 1930s. Physicians and health authorities knew that long-term risk to airborne asbestos fibers resulted in lung diseases. Many in the asbestos-producing and manufacturing business also knew their materials could turn deadly. However, they put profits before people and kept selling asbestos products like floor and ceiling tiles to unsuspecting tradespeople and homeowners.
Once asbestos tiles were installed and sealed, they posed little or no health risk. That’s as long as the microscopic asbestos fibers remained stable inside the tile material. Health risks occurred when factory workers placed raw asbestos fibers in the tile blends. Harmful exposure also happened when installers cut, sanded and shaped ACM products or when renovators tore up old asbestos tiles.
Amosite fibers were far more dangerous than chrysotile asbestos exposure. That’s because the amphibole asbestos classes have much sharper shards and are more likely to embed in workers’ lung lining or mesothelium when they inhaled airborne asbestos fibers. Impaled fibers caused scar tissue that became tumorous and resulted in incurable cancer called mesothelioma.
Compensation for Mesothelioma Victims
There is no known cure for mesothelioma and the latency period for developing this deadly disease can take between 10 and 50 years. The only recourse a mesothelioma victim has is holding negligent manufacturers of ACM tiles and other products accountable. Compensation is available to cover medical expenses, lost income and personal injury damages. Family members of mesothelioma victims can claim on their behalf as well as file lawsuits for wrongful death cases.