Asbestos – The Hidden Killer
Updated: Mar 9, 2020
What do you need to know about asbestos before undertaking work on your home?
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a collective term for a group of naturally occurring minerals composed of miscroscopic fibres. Asbestos has good insulating and fire retardant qualities and as such it was used extensively in the construction industry for many years. The industrial use of asbestos dates back to the mid-19th century and its use was commonly used as a building material in the UK from the 1950's through to the mid-1980's. The use of asbestos in the UK was restricted in the 1980’s and it was finally banned altogether in 1999. Any building built before 2000 (houses, factories, offices, schools, hospitals etc) can therefore contain asbestos. Asbestos products are known as Asbestos Containing Materials or ACM’s.
Is asbestos dangerous?
Yes - asbestos can be extremely dangerous. When asbestos fibres are inhaled they can become lodged in the lungs where they can eventually cause harm, leading to serious diseases which are responsible for around 5000 deaths a year in the UK alone. There are four main diseases caused by asbestos: mesothelioma (a cancer of the pleural linings around the lungs), lung cancer, asbestosis and diffuse pleural thickening. Mesothelioma and the form of lung cancer caused by asbestos fibres are both almost always fatal. Asbestosis is not always fatal but is very debilitating. Pleural thickening is debilitating and can be an early sign of mesothelioma.
Asbestos is only dangerous when fibres become airborne, which happens when materials are drilled, cut, sanded or broken.
Where might I find asbestos in my home?
Asbestos is likely to be found in any home constructed, extended, refurbished or adapted between 1900 and 2000. The use of ACMs was less widespread after 1980 but cannot be discounted altogether.
The more common areas that asbestos may be found are:
• Garages and sheds - asbestos cement flat and corrugated sheeting.
• Roofs - tiles, guttering, insulation, roofing felts, soffites.
• Pipes - asbestos cement sewerage, external rainwater and flue pipes.
• Cold water tanks - moulded asbestos cement.
• Internal walls and wall linings - insulating board and asbestos cement sheet.
• Ceiling and thermoplastic wall linings.
• Textured plasters and paints, eg 'Artex', etc.
• Around boilers and pipes in flats or older houses - lagging.
• Steel-framed houses and communal areas of flats - sprayed asbestos coatings for protection and insulation.
• Warm air heating and storage heaters - insulation blocks, boards and papers lining heater cupboards and ducting, and storage heaters made before 1976.
• Bath panels, door panels and plastic toilet cisterns, and walls of prefabricated buildings erected prior to 1972.
• Covering panels on access points to service ducts
• Anti-vibration panels to stainless steel sinks.
• Gaskets and washers to boilers and radiators and electrical fuse boards.
This list is not exhaustive.
Are there different types of asbestos?
Yes, asbestos used in the UK is broken down into three broad classes:
Chrysotile – often referred to as white asbestos.
Chrysotile asbestos is commonly found in asbestos cement boards and pipes, thermoplastic floor tiles and textured coatings. Its use was not banned in the UK until 1999 as it was considered slightly less harmful than other types of asbestos. In my experience it is the most common form of asbestos encountered in residential properties.
I point out potential ACM’s to all clients and I’m often told that their surveyor or builder has told that that it’s ‘only’ white asbestos, low grade asbestos or the type that’s ‘not harmful’. The World Health Authority and the World Trade Organisation both consider chrysotile asbestos to be a serious carcinogen.
Amosite – often referred to as brown asbestos.
Amosite asbestos was commonly formed as a rigid board, used in partition walls, ceiling tiles, soffits, internal doors and solid panels beneath windows. Its use was banned in the UK 1980. Amosite is less commonly found in residential properties that chrysotile asbestos but I have come across it on numerous occasions.
Amosite is considered to be a more harmful form of asbestos than chrysotile.
Crocidolite – often referred to as blue asbestos.
Crocidolite asbestos in the UK was commonly used for sprayed insulation, pipe lagging, gaskets and cement boards. Its use was banned in 1970.
Crocidolite is considered to be the most harmful type of asbestos due to the size and shape of the fibres.
How do I know if there is asbestos in my home?
Commercial premises are required by law to have an asbestos register, detailing the location and type of any asbestos present in the building. This ensures that the ACM can be managed on a day to day basis and that it’s presence can be alerted to any tradesmen working on the building. Perhaps peculiarly, there is no legal requirement for an asbestos register for homes in the UK, despite the fact that most of us spend more time at home than at our place of work, and that with the popularity of DIY, our homes are the places where it is most likely that building fabric will be disturbed by people with no awareness of the potential presence and danger of asbestos.
If you had a survey when you bought your home it should make reference to any potential ACM’s that are visible. Similarly, your architect or designer should point out any potential ACM’s that he or she becomes aware of during any inspections or measured surveys undertaken as part of the design process. It is important to realise that neither of these activities are an asbestos survey. Remember that many asbestos products can be concealed within the fabric of the building and exposed asbestos will not necessarily be apparent if it has been painted.
Should I get an asbestos survey?
If you’d like to know whether there are ACM’s in your property you could consider obtaining an asbestos management survey from a suitably qualified surveyor. Most asbestos surveyors are specialists in this field and only offer services related to asbestos. It is very unlikely that your local building surveyor will e able to provide this service.
Prior to undertaking any construction work you should consider an asbestos survey of some description if your home was built prior to 2000.
It is a legal requirement that an intrusive asbestos survey is undertaken by a suitably qualified professional prior to undertaking demolition or construction work on a commercial or residential property. Whilst there is no direct requirement for an intrusive asbestos survey to be carried out prior to work on a residential property, the Construction, Design and Management Regulations 2015 (CDM Regs) impose a duty to inform contractors of any hazards as part of a pre-construction information exercise.
Where substantial works are proposed I would recommend that an intrusive ‘demolition and refurbishment’ survey is carried out, for less extensive projects a surface level visual management type survey will suffice, with sampling of any potential ACM’s encountered.
As an absolute minimum you should use a builder with asbestos awareness training and ensure that he uses an asbestos testing kit on any potential ACM’s encountered.
What if there are ACM's in my home?
If asbestos products are discovered in your home prior to, or during the course of your works you should ask your builder to explain how he will manage them.
There are three basic methods of asbestos management:
• Retain the ACM in situ without sealing but with appropriate management.
• Retain the ACM with effective sealing or encapsulation and appropriate management.
• Safe removal and disposal of the ACM.
Small amounts of certain ACM's can be removed by householders in accordance with guidance set out by the Health and Safety Executive and can sometimes be disposed of at a local authority waste facility. You can find your nearest facility and obtain details of the requirements for wrapping and sealing the materials for transport and disposal by contacting your local Council.
Depending on the type and amount of asbestos involved, removal of ACM’s may require a notification to the HSE and may require the use of a licensed contractor. Any asbestos products removed by a contractor will need to be disposed of using a special asbestos skip and the skip operator will need to be suitably licensed.
Be wary of any general builder who claims to be licensed for asbestos removal. Similarly to asbestos surveyors, the training and insurance requirements for licensed asbestos contractors are very expensive and as such they tend to prevent anyone other than a specialist operating in this part of the industry. In my experience it is not uncommon for a builder who has taken an online or one day asbestos awareness course to mistakenly believe that he is a licensed asbestos contractor.
Remember that any asbestos work that is undertaken in an unsafe manner will put your builder, you, your family and your neighbours at risk of serious and often life threatening illness.
This is not an exhaustive guide and is intended only as an introduction. Further information on this subject can be found on the HSE website