My condo kitchen floor is vinyl, installed back in 1979

My condo kitchen floor is vinyl, installed back in 1979. I am told the vinyl contains asbestos. Now it needs replacing. How do I safely remove the vinyl and what are some green choices for a new floor?

—Green Dreamer, via e-mail

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Today, the only money to be made from asbestos is by those in the business of getting rid of it, and an entire industry has sprung up specializing in safely removing asbestos from both commercial and residential buildings.© Getty Images

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that can be used in a variety of industrial applications due to its strong flexible fibers, its resilience to heat and chemicals, and the fact that it does not conduct electricity. From the late 1800s through the 1970s, asbestos was used extensively in the U.S. and elsewhere in everything from pipes and insulation to siding and flooring, including vinyl tiles.

The problem with asbestos is that its microscopic fibers can become airborne when materials containing it get worn out, damaged or disturbed. Inhaling these airborne fibers can lead to a variety of health problems such as asbestosis (a chronic lung ailment that can produce shortness of breath and permanent lung damage) and a variety of cancers, including those of the lung, larynx and gastrointestinal tract.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) effectively banned asbestos in 1989. (The ban was later overturned in federal court as a result of pressure from mining and construction interests, but the damage to the substance’s reputation was too formidable for industry to start using it widely again.) Today, the only money to be made from asbestos is by those in the business of getting rid of it, and an entire industry has sprung up specializing in safely removing asbestos from both commercial and residential buildings.

The EPA recommends that homeowners who want to remove asbestos-containing materials from their residences hire a licensed contractor to do the dirty work, so as not to compromise family or personal health. The EPA maintains an online listing of asbestos removal specialists across the country, and homeowners can also look in their local Yellow Pages under “asbestos abatement” or “asbestos removal” to find local contractors qualified to remove and dispose of the stuff safely and completely.

Hiring such a firm can cost thousands of dollars; so many do-it-yourselfers still take it upon themselves to remove worn asbestos-containing materials (tiles, siding, etc.) from their own homes. Anyone willing to undertake such risks should make sure to get a respirator and other safety equipment to protect against inhaling airborne asbestos particles, and should seal off work areas so the carcinogenic dust does not spread into other areas of the building. The Flooring Lady website is chock full of details on how to minimize risks and includes strong reminders that such a task is not for the risk-averse.

As for what to replace those worn vinyl tiles with, many greener choices abound. Bamboo, cork, linoleum, and sustainably harvested or reclaimed wood are all environmentally sound and widely available flooring options. Some of these products are available at the big box home improvement stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot, but better selections can be found at online green building supply stores like Ecohaus, Green Building Supply and GreenFloors, among others.

CONTACTS: U.S. EPA Asbestos Information; The Flooring Lady; Ecohaus; Green Building Supply; GreenFloors