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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.
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This sheet flooring was identified by a reader in a 1964 home. She found remnants in the bottom of a kitchen cabinet on which was imprinted "Armstrong". Is it linoleum?
[Click to enlarge any image]
A closer look at the product including its backing would be needed. It could be, but this pattern looks more modern to us and is probably a vinyl sheet flooring product.
At ASBESTOS FLOOR TILE IDENTIFICATION PHOTOS 1951-1980 we include a reader report of lab testing performed on this flooring and confirming that it contained "70% asbestos".
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.
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.
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.
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.
ASBESTOS TESTING LAB LIST provides contact information for sources of currently-certified asbestos testing laboratories.
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.
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