What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos is the name given to a group of minerals that occur naturally in the environment as bundles of asbestos fibres that can be separated into thin, durable threads. Asbestos has been used in the building and construction industry in a variety of forms, from strengthening cement and plastics as well as for insulation, roofing, fireproofing and sound absorption.
If products containing asbestos are disturbed, tiny asbestos fibres are released into the air. When asbestos fibres are breathed in, they may get trapped in the lungs and remain there for a long time. Over time, these fibres can accumulate and cause scarring and inflammation, which can affect breathing and lead to serious health problems including mesothelioma. The symptoms of asbestos-related diseases may not become apparent for many decades after the exposure occurred.
How Is It Dangerous?
Asbestos causes serious life threatening illnesses including lung cancer and mesothelioma. Prior to 1976 there was no legal requirement for products containing asbestos to be labelled. Asbestos was used as a building material until it was finally fully banned in 1999.
Where Is Absestos Found?
Asbestos containing materials were used internally and externally in a vast number of buildings. This includes homes, schools, officers, factories. Any property built prior to 2000 has the possibility to contain asbestos.
Who Is At Risk?
Anyone involved in refurbishment works, maintenance activities or similar trades is generally considered at higher risk. Asbestos fibres only become airborne when building materials are disturbed. This could occur even during basic DIY tasks such as drilling into walls, hanging pictures, replacing flooring.
If you have any concerns regarding asbestos being found in your home, at your place of work, or any other building an Asbestos Survey is strongly recommended. This can identify if any construction materials used within the building contain asbestos or not.
I Think I May Have Found Asbestos – What Should I Do?
Do not try to repair or remove any asbestos materials yourself if you have not had any training for non-licensed asbestos work. You can seek advice from an environmental health officer at your local authority/council (see the Directgov website).
If you are sure (or strongly suspect) that your home contains asbestos materials then it is often best to leave them where they are – especially if they are in good condition and unlikely to get damaged. You should check the condition of the materials from time to time to make sure they haven’t been damaged or started to deteriorate.
Slightly damaged asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) can sometimes be repaired by sealing or enclosing them. However, you should only attempt to do this if you have had the necessary training. Any badly-damaged asbestos material that is likely to become further damaged should be removed if it cannot be protected. Some materials (sprayed asbestos coatings, asbestos lagging / insulation or asbestos insulating board) should only be removed by a contractor licensed by HSE. Your local environmental health officer can provide advice on this.
If you are planning any DIY home improvements, repairs or maintenance – and intend to bring in any additional builders, maintenance workers or contractors – you should inform them of any asbestos materials in your home before they start work. This will help reduce the risks of any ACMs being disturbed. HSE strongly encourages the use of trained professionals to repair or remove ACMs. If you choose to carry out DIY repairs or remove damaged asbestos materials yourself, make sure you wear the right protective equipment and follow safe working methods. For advice on doing this, see: Asbestos essentials task sheets.
In addition, please be aware that ACMs need to be legally disposed of as hazardous waste. This 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. Contact you local authority for information about asbestos and its disposal .
The presence of asbestos alone should not be a cause for concern. Asbestos only becomes a risk to human health when it is released into the air and breathed in.
Duty holders – those who are responsible for maintaining or repairing non-domestic premises – are required to actively manage any asbestos in buildings. This provides a practical way to identify, prioritise and properly plan the actions that need to be taken to manage the risks.
Where asbestos containing materials are assessed as being in good condition and not in a position where they are likely to be damaged they should be left in place and monitored.
However, where asbestos is in poor condition or is likely to be damaged during the normal use of the building, it should be sealed, enclosed or removed, as appropriate.
Those considered most at risk of exposure to asbestos fibres are tradesmen and maintenance workers who disturb the fabric of buildings during the course of their work. Precautions must be taken to ensure that tradespeople don’t put themselves or others at risk by disturbing asbestos.