Asbestos Bitumen – The Essential Guide

Asbestos was widely used in the UK and worldwide from the early 1900s until the 1990s. It’s not used now due to the health risks it poses but due to it’s extensive use it can still be found in many homes and properties.

A common application for asbestos was to create bitumen which was both an internal and external adhesive. Below, I take a look at asbestos bitumen and explain what it was, how to identify it, and it’s potential health risks. 

Understanding Asbestos Bitumen

Bitumen is a viscous material that comes from petroleum. It is most commonly stick and thick and works fantastically as an adhesive due to the bonds it can create. During the asbestos craze, it was added to bitumen adhesive to create a strong, more resistant substance that could easily stick things like floor tiles. 

Typically, asbestos bitumen would contain 8% chrysotile asbestos so compared to other products like asbestos cement or asbestos insulation, the asbestos content was relatively low. Asbestos bitumen was almost exclusively used as an adhesive for floor tiles and other types of floor coverings.

Why Was Asbestos Used to Create Bitumen?

Asbestos has natural fire resistance and is incredibly durable. When it was combined with bitumen, the result was a strong adhesive that would keep items like floor tiles and floor slabs in place for years without any movement. The fire resistance was also a bonus as this would somewhat offset the flammable nature of bitumen as a derivative from petroleum.

What Does Asbestos Bitumen Look Like?

Unlike most asbestos products that are white, asbestos bitumen had a characteristic black appearance. Asbestos bitumen was only ever black so if you check your floor tiles and they have transparent or white adhesive, it shouldn’t contain asbestos.

Over time, the asbestos bitumen can crumble and become brittle so you may notice a black powdery substance underneath your floor tiles.

Is Asbestos Bitumen Still Common in the UK?

The general rule for asbestos products is that if you property was built after 1999 then it shouldn’t contain any ACM. Asbestos bitumen for floor tiles was popular during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Therefore, if you have an older set of floor tiles that have never been replaced since then, they could contain asbestos bitumen.

Use your common sense during your assessment. For example, perhaps you have an old property that was built during the 1970s. However, all the floors in your house have been replaced in the last decade. Common sense here shows that because the floors have been replaced, there shouldn’t be any asbestos bitumen – only minor traces that might not have been removed properly but are now covered by your new flooring. 

How Dangerous is Asbestos Bitumen?

Of the products that can contain asbestos[1], bitumen is one of the “safer” items. This is primarily because of how it was used. As an adhesive, asbestos bitumen would be sealed on the underside of tiles and thus there should never be any risk of exposure.

However, as with any asbestos there is always a danger. If you remove floor tiles and find crumbling adhesive underneath, the fibres could become airborne and pose a health risk.

To reiterate, asbestos bitumen isn’t a health risk as long as it remains undercover. However, if you have cracked or broken tiles where the adhesive becomes exposed, there is a health risk. It’s not classed as licensable asbestos removal work, but I still advise getting a professional contractor to remove asbestos bitumen tiles if you find them in your home.

References 

[1] – HSE – Products That Might Contain Asbestos

The content on this page/article was last updated on the 6th December 2023 by our team and was reviewed and fact checked by William Wright, DipNEBOSH on the 6th December 2023.

William is a qualified health & safety consultant who holds NEBOSH & IOSH certifications.