Asbestos Floor Tile & Mastic

Jul 19, 2019

Buying or remodeling an older property can be exciting. However, one item that can be uncovered is vinyl floor tile installed before the late 1970s. Vinyl floor tiles made before this time period could potentially contain asbestos and derail a major housing project. In this blog, we will discuss vinyl floor tile and how to manage the material.

Introduction to Vinyl Floor Tiles

Vinyl floor tiles (VFT), which are also known as vinyl composite tiles (VCT), are flooring materials that are created from polyvinyl chloride (PVC). The tiles became more well known after being displayed at the 1933 “A Century of Progress International Exposition” in Chicago, IL. Earlier floor tiles used asphalt as a binder while more modern tiles use a vinyl resin. The vinyl tiles are created in sheets and cut into their desired sizes such as 9” x 9” or 12” x 12”. Asbestos, known for adding durability, was mixed into the materials typically between a 1-10% range which strengthens the tiles so that they would not easily break. 

Floor Tile Size and Mastic

The most infamous vinyl floor tile is the 9” x 9” variety which was a popular size during its peak and is typically associated with being an asbestos-containing material. The more modern 12” x 12” vinyl floor tiles may also contain asbestos if installed prior to the late 1970s. In my prior position as an asbestos microscopist, the vast majority of 9” x 9” floor tiles I analyzed did contain some asbestos, typically in the 1-5% and sometimes the 5-10% range. In rare cases, the 9” x 9” tile did not contain asbestos. In cases where the tile is not asbestos-containing, one item that is overlooked is the underlying glue also known as mastic. Mastic that is black in color is a “primary suspect” for asbestos-containing materials much like the 9” x 9” vinyl floor tiles.  From my laboratory experience, old black mastic often contains 1-5% asbestos. The asphalt binder results in its appearance as black. The black mastic was eventually superseded by yellow and clear based glues, which in rare cases may also contain asbestos.

Yellow and Black Mastic
Black Mastic

Managing Asbestos-Containing Floor Tile

Once the asbestos floor tile or mastic is uncovered and tested by a licensed professional asbestos inspector, the question arises of what to do with it. The first option is to leave it in place. If the tile will not be affected by a renovation, it is relatively safe to keep the tiles in a place as long as the material is in good condition. Floor tile and mastic are considered to be non-friable materials, which means they don’t release their fibers easily (technically, they cannot be ground into a powder with hand pressure when dry). As long as the material remains in its stable non-friable condition, the tile or mastic will not emit its asbestos fibers. Sanding or grinding tiles or mastic that contain asbestos may release its fibers. The second option is to encapsulate the flooring. This can be done by spraying a special encapsulant on the material or placing another material on top of the tiles that will not disturb it. The final option, which is the most expensive, is to have the material removed by licensed asbestos professionals. The removal process typically includes either heat or gross removal of the tile along with using a chemical mastic remover. 

In conclusion, while asbestos-containing floor tile and mastic can be a daunting sight when working on a remodel project or a real estate transaction, they can be managed. We recommend having the material tested, before conducting any activities which may disturb the tile. For more information about where to find asbestos in a home, feel free to check out our previous blog on the subject.