Asbestos still kills around 5,000 people a year – more than the number of people killed on the roads. But even though its toxicity was recognized by doctors as far back as 1899, it can be present in buildings built or refurbished before 2000, according to the Government’s Health & Safety Executive.
Breathing in asbestos fibers can cause serious diseases including mesothelioma, a cancer which affects the lining of the lungs and the lining surrounding the lower digestive tract; lung cancer; and asbestosis: a serious scarring condition of the lung that normally occurs after heavy exposure to asbestos over many years. The condition can cause progressive shortness of breath and in severe cases can be fatal.
You may find loose-fill asbestos in lofts, cavity walls and under floorboards. It’s a loose, fluffy insulation material which looks like candyfloss. It can be blue-grey or whitish in colour and is probably the most dangerous asbestos-containing material. If disturbed, it can release many asbestos fibers into the air.
Lagging and insulation around piping and boilers can also contain a type of asbestos which is fibrous, flakes and powders easily and is often painted in different colours, making it more difficult to detect.
Asbestos can also be found in spray coatings on the undersides of roofs and floors, originally used for fire protection. It’s dangerous because even minor disturbance can release large amounts of asbestos fibers, which can be breathed in.
“When I moved into my home I was concerned to find out that the survey we’d had when purchasing the house hadn’t tested for asbestos (even though it was a comprehensive survey),” says homeowner Jane Smith.
“This was a particular concern because our kitchen had old Artex on the ceiling and if we wanted to get rid of it or plaster over it, it could prove a very expensive job if it had asbestos in it.
“We organized for an asbestos survey to be done and the company came over and tested the whole house, including the Artex. We then awaited the results. When they came through, we were really relieved that the Artex didn’t contain it.
“However, the survey did alert us to asbestos elsewhere. Near to the fuse box there was a piece of white asbestos mixed with concrete. There was a small chip in it and we had to have it removed.
“I think if I move house in the future I will now just get an asbestos survey as a matter of course alongside the traditional survey. The peace of mind it brought was very reassuring.”
Don’t touch or try to remove any suspect material.
• Seek advice from an environmental officer at your local health authority.
• Get a professional to remove damaged asbestos material.
• Check regularly that undamaged material containing asbestos isn’t deteriorating.
If you are refurbishing your home and are concerned about the presence of asbestos, contact a professional. Sprayed asbestos coatings, asbestos lagging, insulation or insulating board should only be removed by a contractor licensed by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Your local environmental health officer can provide advice on this.
If you are bringing in builders or other outside workers to do home improvements, repairs or maintenance, inform them of any asbestos materials in your home before they start work to help reduce the risk of asbestos fibres being disturbed.
The HSE strongly encourages the use of trained professionals to repair or remove asbestos-containing materials (ACMs). And remember that asbestos should not be mixed with normal household waste. You may be able to arrange to have it collected or there may be special facilities in your area you can use to dispose of it.