American Olean Tile Company History
The American Olean Tile Company was formed in 1948 with the merger of two other tile companies – American Encaustic Tile Co., Ltd. and Olean Tile Co. The company was purchased by the building materials supplier National Gypsum Company in 1958, which created American Olean Tile as a subsidiary. With that, National Gypsum held about 15 percent of the tile market.
American Olean remained under ownership of National Gypsum until 1988, when it was sold to Armstrong World Industries for $330 million. Entering the ceramic-tile and wall-tile business seemed like a good business move for Armstrong; the purchase added about $200 million to its 1989 sales. The company employed about 600 people at its American Olean plant in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. But American Olean sales fell short of its goals, and in 1995, Armstrong struck a deal with Dallas-based Dal-Tile International Inc. Under the agreement, Armstrong traded American Tile and about $28 million for a 37 percent stake in Dal-Tile. The Lansdale plant closed one year later.
At the time it was sold to Dal-Tile, American Olean produced glazed ceramic mosaics for commercial and institutional settings like malls, office buildings, schools and hospitals. The company had tile-making plants in Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee and New York, with total sales of about $250 million in 1995.
It is interesting – and perhaps sadly ironic, given the company’s connection to the deadly mineral asbestos – that the American Olean Tile Company was founded by Malcolm A. Schweiker, the father of Richard S. Schweiker, who served as Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary under President Ronald Reagan. The younger Schweiker, too, worked his way up the ranks of American Olean, eventually serving as the company’s president.
Products Manufactured by American Olean Tile Company that Contained Asbestos
American Olean Tile Company was one of numerous companies to use asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral comprised of long, crystalline fibers, in its products. Until the 1970s, asbestos was used in a long list of products – including flooring materials – because of the mineral’s ability to withstand heat and prevent fire. Asbestos fibers were used in building materials, insulation and protective clothing ostensibly to make the products fire-retardant and therefore safer, but the mineral was also extremely popular because it was readily accessible and cheap.
Asbestos was an ideal choice for flooring products because it also helped make the materials strong, flexible, durable, and resistant to moisture and scratches. Until 1980, a significant amount of tile flooring and floor adhesive contained asbestos, including vinyl, vinyl sheet, rubber and asphalt floor tiles, as well as tile backings, adhesives and glues.
Unfortunately, asbestos did more harm than good. Literally millions of workers and consumers were exposed to the mineral during its heyday, from World War II until the 1970s, before it was discovered that asbestos causes great bodily harm. It wasn’t until great numbers of people began falling ill that the truth began to emerge: Asbestos is responsible for deadly respiratory diseases like mesothelioma cancer.
Products manufactured by American Olean Tile Company known to have contained asbestos include, but are not limited to:
- Floor tiles and adhesives
- American Olean Tile Asbestos Backing Board
Occupations at Risk for Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos is generally most hazardous when tiny pieces of the mineral enter a person’s lungs and become lodged there; therefore, the danger of asbestos lies mainly in its dust, which has been known to hang in the air in areas where asbestos products were being used. For example, when asbestos-containing floor tiles were installed, they frequently had to be cut and filed down to a certain shape; when the tiles were removed, workers would break the tiles with mallets to tear them out. Both processes released large amounts of asbestos dust into the air, potentially infiltrating the lungs of any workers who were nearby – most frequently affecting tile-setters, plumbers, construction workers and demolition workers.
Homeowners who took on home-improvement projects using American Olean’s asbestos-containing products also put themselves – and their family members – at risk. And in some cases, just living in a home where asbestos tiles were used could be risky. If those tiles cracked or deteriorated with age, sweeping or vacuuming could be enough to kick up asbestos dust into the environment. Individuals who worked in American Olean factories were also at a high risk of exposure, as raw asbestos fibers used in manufacturing tiles and adhesive products could easily have become airborne.
It’s important to remember that while the use of asbestos has been banned in flooring materials and other products for decades, the risk is not gone. Asbestos-containing tiles and adhesives can still be found in older homes and buildings throughout the country, so the utmost care should be exercised when working on buildings constructed or renovated in or before the 1970s.
As of May 2011, numerous lawsuits have been filed against American Olean Tile Company by former employees, tile workers and others who say they were exposed to deadly asbestos fibers in the company’s products. American Olean’s onetime parent company, Armstrong World Industries, has also been named in a large number of asbestos-related lawsuits – so many, in fact, that the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2000.Sources
Dal-Tile International Inc. – Company History
Armstrong World Industries Inc. – Company History
“Malcolm Schweiker, 87, Dies; Father of Cabinet Secretary”
“American Olean Tile Asbestos Backing Board”