Tile Installers and Asbestos Exposure
The majority of tiles before the 1980s were made from vinyl, a reliable yet flexible mixture that was durable and inexpensive. However, asbestos was often added to the other materials for fireproofing in commercial buildings.
Asbestos tiles were widely used from the 1920s until the 1980s and were a popular choice due to their resilience and value for money.
A study published in 2005 looked at the likelihood of asbestos-containing floor tiles causing asbestos-related diseases and concluded that there was a minimal risk to tile installers themselves. While the tiles do contain asbestos, there is little airborne exposure, even with cutting or sanding as the asbestos remains part of a flexible substance that isn’t easily friable.
Asbestos in products tends to become more friable over time. In the case of tiles, it seems that the fibers mostly remain intact and pose a lower threat to installers. Asphalt and vinyl floor tiles generally contained around 15-20% asbestos.
Because they were mixed and bonded with the other materials, there’s a low risk of tile installers inhaling toxic asbestos.
Risks of Tile Removal
Another study in 2002 looked at the risk of asbestos exposure when removing tiles. It found that while there is a risk of older asbestos fibers becoming airborne, the amount was well below the occupational exposure standards.
Despite the results of these studies, there have been historical records of tile installers developing mesothelioma.
Two men in 1970 were diagnosed with mesothelioma. Both admitted to frequently sanding down vinyl tiles for work. An investigation found that there would have been dust concentrations of 1.3 fibers per ml and that fibers were so thin that they could easily pass through the membrane filter that installers wore.
The legal occupational exposure standard is 1.0 fibers per ml, meaning that tile sanding could expose workers to high levels of asbestos and put them at risk of developing mesothelioma.
Today, tiles made with asbestos are generally being phased out in the United States. Old asbestos tiles are legal to remain in buildings as long as they stay in good condition.
On the other hand, damaged or decomposing tiles run the risk of releasing asbestos fibers into the air. At this point, the asbestos-containing tiles can become highly dangerous.