Years Produced: 1920 – Present
Vinyl is a plastic resin manufactured from ethylene and chlorine. The product is sturdy yet flexible, making it a common component of many building and housing materials.
Asbestos was often mixed into vinyl because it improved the product’s strength and insulating properties. Asbestos was also relatively inexpensive and versatile.
Common vinyl products that often contained asbestos include:
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Asbestos vinyl products have been used since the 1920s. Vinyl sheet wallpaper was first introduced in 1920, while vinyl floor tile and vinyl sheet flooring were introduced in the 1950s.
Vinyl products became popular in homes because of their durability, relatively inexpensive price and ease of installation. Vinyl wallpaper and flooring came in an assortment of colors, textures and styles. In floor tiles, the vinyl acts like a binder for asbestos fibers.
While the use of asbestos in vinyl materials was largely phased out during the 1980s because of health concerns, many older homes, commercial buildings and schools still contain asbestos vinyl products. Some uses of asbestos in vinyl are still allowed, including vinyl wallpaper.
Asbestos in vinyl products becomes dangerous when fibers are released and become airborne. Normally, if the material is in good condition, it does not pose a threat. The asbestos is enclosed in vinyl, preventing the fibers from escaping. Tile and wallpaper products are considered non-friable. This means that the product is not easily broken by slight pressure.
However, cutting, sanding or disturbing damaged tile or wallpaper can result in the release of asbestos. If inhaled or swallowed over a long period of time, the fibers can cause a number of serious illnesses such as asbestosis and mesothelioma. The mastics or adhesives used to install these products also contained asbestos, though the fibers in adhesives are less likely to become airborne.
The most dangerous of these products is asbestos vinyl sheet flooring. Vinyl sheet flooring comes in large pieces and is usually cut to the size of the room and laid down in one piece. This type of flooring often had an asbestos backing that is considered friable, and the fibers are easily released if the material is disturbed or damaged.
Flooring installers and factory workers have the greatest risk of exposure.
In the 1990s, a floor covering contractor named Robert Ehret was diagnosed with pericardial mesothelioma and sued Congoleum Corporation along with several other flooring companies. Mr. Ehret installed vinyl flooring for 20 to 30 years, during which time he was exposed to asbestos fibers that caused him to develop mesothelioma.
He eventually died of the disease before his trial, but the jury awarded $3.3 million dollars for pain, suffering, loss of consortium and lost earnings to his wife and three children.
After American Biltrite, a company that also manufactured asbestos vinyl tiles, bought 55 percent of Congoleum Corporation, it assumed much of the responsibility for any lawsuits filed. As of 2010, the company faced 1,213 pending asbestos claims and expects to pay out approximately $17.7 to $62 million through 2015 to settle them.
It is always safer to assume that material manufactured before the 1990s contains asbestos. Abating asbestos vinyl wallpaper and floor tiles does not typically require a license since these materials are considered non-friable.
Vinyl flooring and wallpaper that contain asbestos cannot be recognized on sight. However, sometimes the size of the tile can help determine if it was a product made with asbestos.
Proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) should always be worn when handling these materials. Tiles and wallpaper should be sprayed with water before removing. Keeping the material damp will prevent fibers from escaping.
The abatement of asbestos vinyl sheet flooring should only be done by a licensed abatement professional since this material is considered more hazardous than tile or wallpaper. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) always recommends contacting a professional for any abatement project. For rules and regulation, contact your local EPA office.
Fast Fact: Asbestos-containing vinyl sheet flooring was often designed to resemble carpeting, wood or stone and was less expensive than these other types of flooring.
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