Once welcomed for its versatility as a construction material, asbestos was used for centuries in countless buildings around the world. Despite being responsible for approximately 5,000 deaths every year and being completely banned in many countries, asbestos-containing materials can still be found in numerous schools, factories, offices, hospitals and homes all over the UK.
Does it still pose an everyday threat? How can you tell if you’re being exposed to asbestos? What can you do if you suspect there is asbestos in your home or workplace?
Asbestos… remind me?
‘Asbestos’ refers to a group of naturally occurring silicate minerals, composed of microscopic fibres that break apart when disturbed. It was extensively mined at the end of the 19th century to be used as a construction material, due to its highly-desirable properties such as sound absorption and resistance to fire and electricity.
The availability of asbestos meant that it was popular among manufacturers and builders throughout the 20th century. It was widely used as insulation and mixed into composite materials (such as cladding, concrete and fabrics) until the associated health risks became public knowledge.
What are the health risks of asbestos?
Those tiny fibres that asbestos minerals are made up of? Not so nice for your lungs. Breathing them in, particularly over long periods of time (say, at work), can cause some extremely serious illnesses, like lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis. The tricky part is that some of these illnesses don’t develop for many years after exposure, meaning that once symptoms appear, it’s too late to do anything.
People who work in property refurbishment and maintenance are particularly at risk, such as HVAC engineers, demolition crew, plasterers and surveyors. Although asbestos-related health risks are most commonly associated with exposure over many years, some studies have shown that working on contaminated sites for just a few months can lead to an increased risk of cancer in subsequent years.
But it’s all gone, right?
Although the use of asbestos was phased out during the 1980s and was completely prohibited in Britain in 1999, it can still be found in a huge number of private homes and commercial properties. Ceiling and floor tiles, roof shingles, textured wall coatings, pipe lagging and insulation around heated or electrical appliances are common candidates for asbestos-containing materials (ACMs). It might not even be obvious to look at – but this is actually a good thing.
Asbestos poses the greatest threat when it gets disturbed or damaged, as this causes microscopic fibres to break off into the air (and then get breathed into your lungs). If your home or workplace contains asbestos that is intact, coated and sealed, it’s actually safer to leave it in place than to try and remove it.
Be aware that commercial property owners and managers have a legal obligation to monitor any instances of asbestos in their property, in the interest of public safety. If you think this applies to you, you must check your lease or contract to see who is deemed to be the party responsible for asbestos management (it might be the tenant, building owner, or manager).
Commercial properties should have a formal Asbestos Management Plan in place, logging the type, location, condition and ongoing measures applicable for each instance of asbestos – you may need the assistance of a professional asbestos consultant. A health and safety assessment will need to be carried out and any person likely to come into contact with the area will need to be informed.
What if I need to have it removed?
If you are renovating or demolishing a property that has been built with ACMs, these will have to be carefully removed at the beginning of the process by a licensed professional. High-risk materials have to be handled and disposed of using specific equipment, as the possible exposure to a harmful level of asbestos fibres is a very significant risk. These materials include asbestos insulating board (AIB), pipe lagging and sprayed asbestos coatings.
Take expert advice
If you have any concerns about asbestos in your property, are uncertain about your responsibilities or would like more information about asbestos licensing, visit the Health and Safety Executive site. It has a wealth of information and resources about understanding the risks about asbestos and how to make sure it is safely managed in the home and workplace.