In February 2012 my mother died of cancer, sad but not unremarkable, she died of lung cancer, again nothing strange, it is, by far, the most prolific form of cancer. Specifically, she died of pleural mesothelioma……. blank faces all round I am guessing.  Ok let’s start to fill in some of those blanks, her death was caused by asbestos, a woman who never worked in industry, in fact, was a carer for her mother in her early life and a carer for her family in her later life, as was common in those times. I would like to say that this is a rare occurrence and statistically, it is, (the risk of contracting this disease is 1 in 60 for men but 1 in 773 for women), but the occurrence of secondary contamination is actually higher in women, I’ll come back to that. While most forms of cancer are decreasing, the incidence of mesothelioma is on the increase, (4 fold since the 1980s), it is not due to peak until 2016 and the UK has the second highest incidence in the world.  All very interesting says’ you, what the hell has this got to do with the floor sanding industry?

Asbestos in Vinyl Floor Tiles

About 6 weeks ago a colleague rang me and asked if I had ever sanded off vinyl floor tiles, they were in his daughters’ bedroom and he wanted rid of them, spot the danger yet? No, neither did he, you see in properties built before 1980, vinyl tiles could contain asbestos, in fact, if those tiles are 9” x  9” there is a 95% chance that they DO contain asbestos. Incredibly, despite the fact that the Romans identified the link between this naturally occurring mineral and the early deaths by respiratory disease of the slaves who mined it, we decided to put it in just about everything once the industrial revolution really kicked in, (it’s usage peaked in 1963, blue and brown asbestos were banned in 1985 and white asbestos in 1999).

Where Asbestos might be in your Home

In the flooring and floor sanding industry, this means vinyl sheeting, vinyl tiles the adhesives and mastics to fix them, the backing papers and the damp proof membranes underneath them may contain asbestos. If you leave these products alone they are considered benign but cutting, sawing or sanding them not only endangers health but may be illegal, (see and this is where I come back to my earlier point about secondary contamination. If you have no regard for your own health that is your choice but consider secondary contamination. One of the theories put forward for my mum’s death was that she breathed in a fibre (it only takes one) from her fathers’ overalls when she was a child (he was a plumber) and 50 + years later it killed her, remember it’s usually diagnosed late by which time it’s inoperable and currently there is NO CURE.

I was asked to write this article for our floor sanding website on several occasions but felt I wasn’t qualified. I’m not an expert on the subject, I run a floor sanding business. However, I decided to go ahead, it is a subject very close to my heart, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate. The information on the dangers of asbestos, however, is out there and very accessible (even down to the names of the companies prosecuted for breach of the legislation).  If you work in any industry where you MAY come into contact with asbestos you are legally obliged to undergo awareness training, a list of companies carrying out this training is available If you are starting a DIY project you should also make yourself aware of the potential threat of asbestos.

My colleague, once alerted to the danger his tiles potentially posed, was quickly able to access the specific information he needed and he took the required action. As well as hopefully opening your eyes to the issues of asbestos I am writing this article as I want you to “think on” as our northern colleagues would say. The dangers of asbestos were known for centuries but we didn’t just use it where it was essential, (there weren’t insulating alternatives for many years) we CHOSE to put it in where there WERE options.

The parallels with wood floor finishing products and solvent use are clear, the law is clear, the health information is clear. Choosing the right wood floor finish is vital and if you don’t know what I am talking about do some research or email me.

Image credit: Bradley Environmental UK

If you are in the USA and have been affected by mesothelioma please see this link