How Dangerous Is It To Remove Asbestos-backed Linoleum Floor Tiles?
October 4, 2014 10:14 AM   Subscribe

We have some linoleum floor tiles which might be asbestos. I'd like to get rid of them. How dangerous is this?

We have some linoleum tiles in the fire escape hallway. They swelled up from water damage, and now the kitchen door scrapes against them.

Mrs. Musofire thinks asbestos is supertoxic à la plutonium: just a tiny bit is dangerous. My understanding is that so long as you're not breathing asbestos dust for long periods of time (as construction workers or asbestos miners did), and take reasonable precautions (dust mask, gloves) it should not be an issue.

They're on concrete.

Do I need a professional asbestos abatement company to come scrape six tiles off the floor, or dare we do it ourselves?
posted by musofire to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
First, check with your insurance company. They may pay for professional asbestos removal.

If you or someone in your family or the garbage man who collects it accidentally breathes it in, it can take 20 years before the damage is known. My dad died this last spring from pulmonary fibrosis. This could have been caused by asbestos exposure, we just don't know. What we do know is that he was slowly suffocating to death up until his heart gave out. Listen to your wife.
posted by myselfasme at 10:22 AM on October 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

If they are swelled from water damage that means they are crumbling and that they are hazardous. I'm firmly in your wife's camp: no way in hell would I remove those myself, even six tiles.

Pay for the abatement, even if only to be kind and to take into consideration your wife's anxiety.
posted by Specklet at 10:35 AM on October 4, 2014 [9 favorites]

Asbestos is NOT in the same league as plutonium, or even arsenic. It is dangerous if you breath elevated levels for a long time and especially if you do something else stupid like smoke. There is a decent level of asbestos fiber in the air you breathe as just natural background (it is a natural mineral and VERY common in outcrops all along the west coast, especially northern California.

You can find numerous guides online on safety precautions to take and most landfills will accept the stuff if it is properly bagged. Wet the surface, remove in as large a chunk as possible, do not use any grinding/cutting tools on them and wear GOOD respirators rated for asbestos (most are). A good air cleaning system going next to you while you work is also good and isolate the area you are working in and then clean that up-and all that is now contaminated also and to be thrown away in the same bags as the tile (the filters also).

Would I clean up six tiles on my own? you bet. Would I clean up insulation with asbestos or other friable material-no.
posted by bartonlong at 11:24 AM on October 4, 2014 [10 favorites]

How old is the linoleum? If it's from before 1980 it probably contains asbestos, otherwise you can remove it yourself however you like.

Here's a guide from the State of Minnesota on removing asbestos flooring. It all depends on its condition and how you remove it. Your state or province may have their own guide.
posted by fiercekitten at 11:28 AM on October 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd pay for the professional abatement, even if only to keep my spouse happy. Six tiles? Not worth fighting over.
posted by easily confused at 12:31 PM on October 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

Buy an asbestos home test kit? If they are asbestos, I would definitely remove or encapsulate them. Not worth the stress or mental energy to have to worry even a tiny bit about them.
posted by misterbrandt at 12:54 PM on October 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hire pros. I wouldn't think twice.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:19 PM on October 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you do even a skerrick of cursory googling, you will see multiple, peer-reviewed and government resources all clearly stating that whilst chronic exposure increases your risk that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure.

If you are prepared to jeopardise your life and health for the matter of what will likely be a few hundred bucks, have at it. I would not, personally, be prepared to take that risk,
posted by smoke at 4:17 PM on October 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'd do it myself. Keep it wet, wear a mask, and clean up well. Most likely the health damage is from years of breathing insulation or brake dust. I think you can do this safely with minimal risk.
posted by H21 at 4:26 PM on October 4, 2014

A sample sent to a testing lab for about 50 bux will tell you whether or not the tile has asbestos. There is no "home test", it's done with a microscope. You may be getting worked up about nothing. Look up testing lab in the phone book. Collect a small sample and send it to them in a sealed baggie.

Note the comment above about "friable" and "non-friable" - learn what those mean.
You cannot "breath in" non friable asbestos. Tile, unless very crumbly, is considered non-friable.

From experience, if the tile is 9" square, it's about certain to contain asbestos. Some (but not much) early 12" square tile has asbestos. An experienced person can get a good idea by looking at the way the color specks blend (or not) with the body of the tile.

The mastic (adhesive) underneath may also contain vitamin A. Around here, if it's black, it most likely does. Soak with mineral spirits and clean up with disposable wipes.

Personally, I think the risk is over hyped, and that the people that died from this were people who experienced chronic exposure from friable asbestos. See

In areas I have experience in, it is perfectly legal for a homeowner to remove non-friable cement asbestos shingles - without a space suit - and take them to the dump. Here in Georgia, they have to be taken to an asbestos certified landfill. In Miami, Florida, we were told to take them to the regular landfill.

Some folks, not wanting to deal with it, simply put another floor covering over is. This is called "encapsulation" and is a perfectly legal way of dealing with the issue.
But first, find out if you really do indeed *have* an issue.
posted by rudd135 at 5:42 PM on October 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Asbestos hazard warnings mostly apply to crumbly or feathery particles wafting through the air, and to the workers who deal with this crap every day. If you can easily peel off and bag a few damp floor panels, then it's not really that much of a hazard. Wear a dust mask.

But if your family feels strongly about the issue, then you might want to pay the money to have the professionals make the scenario nicely cleaned. If it makes everyone happy.
posted by ovvl at 7:04 PM on October 4, 2014

The level of danger depends on whether it's friable or not. If the tiles have been damaged, they are likely to be a significant risk just sitting there, never mind removing them, because they may be releasing fibres into the air.

Asbestos is incredibly dangerous stuff if disturbed - there's a reason it's illegal here to even disturb asbestos unless licensed to do so. During remodelling of the common areas of our building at work, they found non-friable asbestos in the bathrooms on our floor (in stall dividers) and the whole area had to be isolated (ie made airtight) and the air-conditioning shut down to the area until it was removed. Get a professional to at least advise you on the risk with your particular situation. In the meantime, don't disturb the tiles at all, so cover them so you're not walking directly on them and don't allow the door to scrape over them at all.
posted by dg at 9:37 PM on October 4, 2014

The degree to which asbestos is legally regulated does not correspond to the degree to which asbestos is dangerous.

My recent experience: when we purchased the building where we plan to live, the furnace lining had fallen apart and lay scattered in chunks across the dirt floor -- obviously pretty bad. Our asbestos inspector is someone I've worked with on other building issues too; he has a great local reputation, and I trust him a lot, especially in evaluating legal risk vs. actual risk. (I kept trying to insist that he test our walls for lead, which would have netted him maybe a thousand dollars, and he kept insisting that this was a bad idea; further investigation showed he was right.) His perspective agrees with what you, H21, and bartonlong are saying about actual risk. The people who get mesothelioma are typically people who have been in particular specialized lines of work for decades. (I asked the inspector about the risk from tracking dust back home on the soles of my shoes, and his response was basically: pffft.) It's technically true that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. But no way you're gonna die just from removing these tiles. The risk might be bigger than your odds of death-by-meteorite, but still vanishingly small.

However, I'd certainly respect mrs. musofire's concern when it comes to making sure no asbestos dust winds up permanently floating around your home. Disturbing the tiles can make them much more dangerous. Take due precautions. Ours were government-mandated, and also for a much worse situation, so they would almost certainly be overkill in your case, but here's what I remember. The asbestos removing firm (under our inspector's close observation) sprayed water to keep things damp, and used a lot of plastic sheeting and duct tape and a giant air pump, while the inspector used a continuous electronic monitor to ensure negative air flow. The duct tape was maybe mostly for the air flow/pressure issues -- there were also doors set up that were plastic flaps, not kept duct-taped, I think. The plastic walls and door flaps divided the basement into three areas: the asbestos zone, the clean zone where the inspector and his monitors stood, and an intermediate area which included a portable shower. (They explained to me that while the shower is legally required, its actual use is not. It was December, and our basement is unheated, and the asbestos remover was wearing a hazmat suit, so I expressed concern but didn't argue.) The removed all the disintegrating chunks, and also all the dirt from the floor underneath to a certain depth. Afterwards the inspector went in and checked things out with a particle monitor, if I remember correctly.

Actually I might be less concerned about professional removal than professional inspection. Friends of ours paid only for professional removal, and that company was alarmingly lax -- like, letting one of the plastic walls fall open, with a baby in the house. The team only got their act together when our friends pretended they had a professional inspector coming over. My impression is that it's not like hanging a door, where the crucial factors are skill and practice; most of the high cost of hiring a professional remover probably goes to certification, insurance, hazard pay, etc. So it's possible it might actually have been better to have the work done by the homeowners, who'd certainly be motivated to do the job right.

In some places you can also hire floor-removal people who are certified to remove asbestos just from floors. So they are cheaper than asbestos specialists.

I doubt you can get an inspector to monitor the work of an uncertified D.I.Y. homeowner. But maybe you could have an inspector come in before and afterwards, to verify (a) that the tiles are asbestos (they'll have to have them sent to a lab, although they may have an immediate opinion), and (b) that no asbestos particles have been stirred up and left hanging around?

Sorry, that's a very long answer. Also, I have zero professional expertise.

tl;dr: removing the tiles won't kill you, but doing it wrong could conceivably endanger your family; techniques for doing it right aren't super-complex; a professional inspector could allay mrs. musofire's not-entirely-unjustified nerves, and maybe make the whole problem irrelevant.
posted by feral_goldfish at 12:47 PM on October 5, 2014

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