How to Inspect & Test to Identify Sheet Flooring that May Contain Asbestos
SHEET FLOORING INSPECT / TEST - CONTENTS: simple visual inspection or test with a standard solvent can help distinguish among linoleum, asphalt-saturated felt based sheet flooring, vinyl flooring & cork flooring.
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Asbestos-containing sheet flooring or resilient flooring product testing & visual inspection for identification of linoleum, asphalt-saturated felt based flooring, vinyl & cork floors. This article describes simple visual inspection and testing using odorless paint thinner or turpentine to separate true linoleum or cork floors from possible, probable, or known asbestos-containing resilient sheet flooring.
This article also provides links to certified asbestos test labs should testing be needed. Our page top photo, contributed by a reader, contains visual clues indicating that this is a saturated felt backed sheet flooring product that may contain asbestos.
Visual Inspection of Sheet Flooring Backer Material
A laboratory test is necessary, using a certified asbestos test lab, to be certain that a material does not contain asbestos. But some visual and other simple tests can give reliable results.
True linoleum sheet flooring: check the back surface of the sheet flooring to look for a coarse brown fabric (jute) - indicating traditional non-asbestos-containing linoleum. This is a true linoleum product. Take a look at the antique linoleum flooring shown below - this is a burlap or jute backed product. More photo examples and linoleum identification aids are
at LINOLEUM & SHEET FLOORING.
Asphalt-felt-based sheet flooring: check the back surface of the sheet flooring for black paper-like material that resembles roofing felt - indicating older sheet flooring products that may contain asbestos in the backer. In our reader-provided photo just below, the torn sheet flooring shows its asphalt-saturated felt backer even without turning the material over for inspection. It would be prudent to assume that at least the felt backing for this flooring material contains asbestos.
Asphalt-saturated felt (paper) backed flooring, used as early as 1910 in the U.S., looks like but is not linoleum flooring. Armstrong's Linoflor, produced beginning in 1937, is an asphalt-based-backer sheet flooring that some referred to and continue to refer to (in my opinion loosely) as "linoleum", adding to the generic use of that word for sheet flooring. - Wilson & Snodgrass, U.S. FPL (2007)
Vinyl sheet flooring: check the back surface of the sheet flooring for white or light colored backer material. Some of these older sheet flooring products up to the early 1980's may contain asbestos.
This product may also look like linoleum bit is almost certainly a vinyl product. But without knowing the age of this flooring type we cannot be sure if its backer or fillers contain asbestos or not. The floor at below left was tested and shown to be asbestos free. The flooring backer shown at below right, from a floor dating before 1980, may contain asbestos.
Cork flooring: tiles or sheet flooring. Cork flooring is easily recognized by visual inspection as it looks like ... well, cork fragments glued together. Cork flooring does not contain asbestos. However Armstrong and possibly some other vinyl-asbestos or asphalt asbestos floor tile manufacturers produced those floor tiles in a cork pattern that is similar to true cork. The difference, however, is apparent on close inspection of the floor surface. The cork tile patterns (as opposed to true cork) are a printed-on design rather than glued-together cork fragments.
The flooring at below left is a true cork floor section. We show a fragment of cork flooring at below right. [Click to enlarge any image].
Below we illustrate a 1960's Armstrong vinyl asbestos floor tile in the company's cork pattern. This asphalt and then vinyl asbestos flooring was produced beginning in the 1950's.
Solvent Tests for Flooring Identification
Wilson & Snodgrass, U.S. FPL (2007) give some helpful suggestions for flooring type identification using a simple solvent. Solvent testing can provide some (but not complete) identifying information about both sheet flooring and resilient tile flooring. The authors recommend using turpentine, but for a less smelly mess I'd also add the use of odorless paint thinner as your test solvent. Wilson & Snodgrass explain that
If a clean, white cloth moistened with a solvent
such as turpentine does not take up the color of the flooring
when it is rubbed in a small, inconspicuous, unwaxed area,
the flooring is vinyl.
The color will transfer to the cloth if
the flooring is asphalt or rubber. A search of historic records
or laboratory testing may be needed to distinguish between
asphalt and rubber flooring. - Wilson & Snodgrass, U.S. FPL (2007)
Watch out: if the flooring is not clean you may be confused by dirt or old wax coatings transferring to your test cloth.
Watch out: when choosing a solvent, in just about any cleaning or investigation procedure it's best to start with the most mild and safe ingredients possible. I would not use lacquer thinner which is likely to damage the floor surface. Other solvents such as hexane are used in our forensic lab for a reliable confirmation of rubber and some other materials, but this solvent is dangerous to handle and may be carcinogenic as well. Even alcohol (iso propanol) that is readily available can create a mess if you try it on an alcohol-soluble painted surface. Stick to odorless paint thinner.
Certified Asbestos Testing Laboratory Tests for Asbestos in Flooring
If you are facing significant building renovation, remodeling or cleanup costs that include disturbing asbestos-suspect flooring, ceiling paints, insulation, or other hazardous materials, it makes sense to ask for a hazard confirmation by a certified asbestos testing laboratory.
Suspected or Presumed Asbestos Containing Material Floor Sample Preparation
Typically an asbestos test lab needs only a small representative sample of flooring material to test for asbestos - about a square inch of intact material. If the existing floor has a damaged or loose section it may be possible to simply pick up a fragment, bag it in a clean Ziplok™ type freezer bag and label it for mailing to the laboratory.
For larger segments it may be possible to clean-cut a sample using a utility knife, with wetting if needed to avoid creating a possible asbestos dust hazard. [McCrone (1987) describes laboratory procedures that require breaking the sheet or tile flooring sample to leave fibers exposed for direct examination.]
Best advice: ask your certified asbestos test laboratory what sample collection, packaging and handling procedures they require.
Please do not mail flooring samples nor anything else to us at InspectApedia unless we have agreed by prior discussion. Please do not mail whole sheets, boxes of multiple tiles etc. The test laboratory does not need so much material and does not want to have to dispose of it.
To identify unknown flooring tile products: at ASBESTOS FLOOR TILE PHOTO ID REQUESTS we include additional photographs of both tile and sheet flooring products submitted by readers with requests for more information.
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Asbestos Identification, Walter C.McCrone, McCrone Research Institute, Chicago, IL.1987 ISBN 0-904962-11-3. Dr. McCrone literally "wrote the book" on asbestos identification procedures which formed
the basis for current work by asbestos identification laboratories.
Richa Wilson, Kathleen Snodgrass, "Early 20th-Century Building Materials: Resilient Flooring" [Very large PDF], Richa Wilson, Intermountain Regional Architectural Historian
Kathleen Snodgrass, Project Leader, United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Technology & Development Program, August 2007, 7300-0773-2322-MTDC. Contact Kathie Snodgrass at MTDC: Tel: 406–329–3922, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Richa Wilson, author; USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Region, 324 25th Street, Ogden,
UT 84401. Phone: 801–625–5704; fax: 801–625–5229: e-mail: email@example.com
Resilient Floor Covering Institute, 401 East Jefferson Street, Suite 102, Rockville, MD 20850, Tel: 301–340–8580, Website:
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