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Asbestos In Your Home

Asbestos is the name given to a group of silicate minerals that form naturally around the world. The distinctive feature of asbestos is its crystals “grow” into long, thin fibers. It’s excellent material properties were extremely valued leading to it’s wide use up to 2000, when it was banned due to its cancerogenic effect on people.

This guide aims to educate you about asbestos and help you assess if your home poses any health hazards to you or your family.

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Fast facts

  • Asbestos is a highly hazardous material. Prolonged inhalation of asbestos fibres can cause asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis and other health complications.
  • Repairs and renovations affecting asbestos-containing materials must only be done by licensed workers, who are trained in handling the hazards safely.
  • Asbestos is dangerous when being cut, drilled, sanded, or processed in any other destructive way. When destroyed, it releases asbestos fibres, which can be breathed in and cause fatal illnesses.
  • If in good condition, asbestos products are best left alone. Well-sealed asbestos materials are inert to most outside forces and pose no danger to your health.
  • If your home was constructed prior to 2000, there is a great possibility it contains traces of asbestos and asbestos-based materials in its structure and exterior.
  • 76% of all houses in England are built before 1980, making them VERY likely to contain asbestos, unless major renovations and removal were done during the years.
  • For rented properties, the responsibility to manage asbestos and mitigate its risk on the residents falls with the landlord.
  • Tenants are advised to be proactive and inquire about asbestos in their property.
  • Homeowners and landlord should go further and investigate and test their property for asbestos.
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Introduction

During the 19th century, asbestos was recognised for its excellent physical properties, including sound absorption, resistance to fire and heat AND lack of electrical conductivity. The material possesses high tensile strength (resistance to stretching or pulling without breaking apart). Furthermore, asbestos is cheap and can be mined in great quantities.

These qualities made it one of the favourite materials of the industrial age and it found huge application in insulating materials, fireproofing, drywall, plaster, car brake pads and many more products and materials.

In the early 20th century, the world began to take notice of the dreadful effects asbestos has on the health. The fibre structure that gives asbestos it’s remarkable physical qualities also proves to be fatal for humans. When inhaled, the fibres will lodge inside the lungs and other internal organs and cause the development of asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma, asbestosis and other diseases.

Due to the large latency between exposure to asbestos and manifestation of its related diseases, AND, the economic benefits of its use, it took a full century before laws were created to regulate its use. The UK was one of the last countries to fully ban the use and import of asbestos in 1999 – just one year before the new millennium.

Prior to this decisive ruling, asbestos was still used in numerous industrial and building processes. It is widely considered that buildings constructed prior to 2000 still contain products and materials which contain asbestos.

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The dangers of asbestos. Who is at risk ?

The highest risk factor lies with ship-building, industrial and construction workers. Those people have been (and still are) at the first lines of asbestos exposure.

Asbestos only becomes dangerous when it’s disturbed. This mostly happens during construction or repair works when asbestos-containing materials are being drilled, cut, sawed, ground, sanded, abraded, demolished, etc. Any process that destroys the material in any way will release microscopic fibres into the air.

When airborne, the fibres can easily be breathed in, when they lodge themselves into the lungs and other internal organs and can later cause severe damage and death.

If left undisturbed, materials like insulation panels or asbestos cement are not dangerous to your health. They don’t emit any harmful particles and are inert when exposed to fire, electricity or the elements.

It’s safe to say that you wouldn’t be endangered around asbestos products and materials that are in good condition and not subjected to any destructive processes, mentioned above.

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Asbestos at work

Asbestos was especially valued in ship-building. It’s safe to assume that everyone working in the shipbuilding sector prior to 1980 in the UK have been exposed to asbestos and have the highest risk of developing its related diseases.

Its resistive and insulating qualities made asbestos ideal for use aboard all types of vessels. The material was widely used throughout every major ship system including engine rooms, boilers, steam and hot water plumbing networks, as well as the walls, floors and ceilings.

Even though asbestos is now banned, many old ships still contain parts that were made with asbestos, so even now shipbuilders and crew face risks of asbestos exposure. Anyone who does retrofitting or repair to old ships, must be aware of the hazards and take precautions.

Another high-risk group is that of builders, construction workers and tradesmen. Asbestos can be found in many old buildings completed prior to 2000. The older the building or house, the more chance it has of being loaded with asbestos products – ranging from plasters and paints to insulation panels and asbestos cement.

Here is a list of specialised trades that are at high risk of exposure to asbestos:

Plumbers / Pipefitters Boilermakers
Plasterers Painters
Roofing contractors Joiners
Electricians and electrical engineers Insulation workers
Demolition workers Factory workers
Maintenance workers Automotive mechanics
Aircraft mechanics Appliance installers
Blacksmiths Metalworkers
Steelworks or blast furnace workers Railway builders
Anyone who works with industrial chemicals or at a chemical factory

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 requires any employer who wants to undertake work in an environment, or with products and processes, which can expose workers to asbestos fibres to obtain a license from the Health and Safety Executive. It is an offence to carry out licensable work without a licence and the guilty can be prosecuted, especially in cases where it has lead to dangerous exposure to asbestos.

IMPORTANT: If you do any type of repairs, DIY, or building work, it’s absolutely crucial to know what kind of materials you’re working with. If there is any chance your work involves asbestos, you need to be thoroughly acquainted with the Asbestos Licensing and Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012. The consequences of doing unlicensed and unsafe work with asbestos products are severe, but the biggest danger is to yourself. Make sure all safety precautions are taken.

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Asbestos at home

The UK permitted the use of asbestos longer than most other developed countries – until 1999. We can assume that any building erected prior to 2000 may contain products and materials made with asbestos.

According to the English housing survey of 2014-2015, 76% of all houses in England are built before 1980. That’s almost 18 million properties, which were all constructed during the golden age for asbestos when the material could be found in hundreds of products used in construction.

In an old house, you can expect to find asbestos all around. While far from exhaustive, the list below contains the most common places around your home where you can find asbestos in some form.

Boilers Boiler flue pipes and ducts
Plumbing, ducts, pipes Eaves, gutters and rainwater pipes
Cold water storage tanks Electrical insulation and wiring
Cement panel ceilings and Artex coatings Floor tiles
Interior walls Stucco and exterior wall siding
Sheetrock / Drywall Fire resistant doors and blankets
Insulation materials – Asbestos Insulation Boards (AIB) were commonly used in the UK up to 1980 and contained 25-40% asbestos.

If you live in an older property, it’s recommended to be proactive and work to identify all asbestos-containing parts and materials around your home. Furthermore, make sure you know who is responsible for managing asbestos in your home. That may be you or your landlord, or another party, usually whoever is responsible for general repairs.

It’s particularly important to NOT undertake any work on anything that may contain asbestos. Asbestos is not dangerous if it’s properly enclosed and in good condition. The best thing you can do is to just leave it alone and monitor that its condition doesn’t deteriorate.

To work with asbestos, you need to be a licensed contractor from the Health and Safety Executive. Doing licensable work without the requisite license is an offence, and especially in the case of asbestos can be prosecuted.

Even though there are particular small jobs where no license is required, it’s not recommended to do any DIY and repairs on anything that contains asbestos. In the interest of safety, it’s best to leave this to the professionals.

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Who is responsible for asbestos ?

Even though you may not actually do work with asbestos yourself, you may still be responsible for managing the asbestos and any relevant activities. This is called “duty to manage” and is bestowed upon you if you’re responsible for the maintenance and repair of the property.

For property owners and landlords of residential properties, the duty to manage asbestos is bestowed upon them. The duty holder will be responsible for:

  • Knowing if asbestos is contained in the property
  • If so, keeping a record of the location and type of asbestos
  • Monitoring its condition over time and ensuring that it doesn’t pose any danger
  • In case of planned work, assessing the risks involved with working on the asbestos product
  • Managing and mitigating any risks involved with carrying out the work
  • Provide information to anyone who might work with asbestos or potentially be exposed

If you’re responsible for managing asbestos, take notice of these guidelines, promoted by the Health and Safety Executive.

The duty to manage is about finding the safest way to handle asbestos and limit the risk to everybody involved with the property. The goal is to keep everyone safe NOT to remove all asbestos.

Indeed, in many situations, demolishing large quantities of asbestos products does more harm than to maintain them in good repair. Asbestos is only dangerous when disturbed. If the material is in good condition and properly managed, it doesn’t pose a risk. So, unless the material has become damaged and there is a risk of airborne asbestos fibres, the best course of action is to take note of the issue and monitor to make sure the condition doesn’t change.

If the asbestos product is damaged or worn, you must notify the relevant authority (usually the local council) and seek help from licensed asbestos removal companies. You’re responsible for making sure the contractors are licensed and are following all safety procedures to ensure nobody gets exposed to airborne asbestos fibres.

Not all asbestos products are equal. Some products contain more asbestos, others might release a higher amount of fibres into the air, making them more dangerous to work with. As the duty holder, you will be responsible for ensuring that each different asbestos product gets handled appropriately and risk is reduced to a minimum. When unsure about whether certain materials contain asbestos, assume that they do and treat them as such.

Tenants responsibilities towards asbestos

If your home is built prior to 2000, you should talk to your landlord and get briefed on any asbestos-containing materials in the property. Ignorance is not a blessing as you may be exposing yourself and your family to serious danger. Proactivity is key !

Even if it’s ultimately the landlord’s responsibility to manage asbestos, it’s the tenants who face the hazards, so it’s recommended to be proactive and do all the assessments yourself if your landlord hasn’t.

Tenants need to cooperate with their landlords and ensure they are taking their responsibility as a duty holder seriously.

As a tenant, you will have to assist your landlord in the management of asbestos in your home. For example, your landlord will depend on you to keep a close eye on the condition of the property and report any arising issue. That includes knowing if any asbestos content is damaged and potentially harmful to your household.

If there is planned work, repair and renovations, you should check if any asbestos content will be affected. If so, you need to make sure that the work will be carried out by a professional who is trained to handle asbestos-based products. Make sure that both landlord and handyman are properly informed.

As previously mentioned, asbestos is MOST dangerous when being repairs or renovated.

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How to know if your home contains asbestos?

Unfortunately, asbestos has no odour and you can’t see it because it is concealed within products. However, you can use the knowledge in this article and your deduction skills to reasonably identify which parts of your home may contain asbestos.

Start with the age of the building. Those built prior to the year 2000 may contain asbestos. Those built around 1980 and prior are VERY LIKELY to contain asbestos unless major renovations and asbestos removal have been done over the years.

Then, analyse the features of the property. In the sections above, you will find numerous products and materials that are commonly found in and around the home which have historically been made with asbestos. Check your property methodically to see which ones you could find.

Then, you should contact the building owner, if you’re the tenant, to inquire about these items. If you’re the building owner and you have no relevant information, you could contact the previous owner.

The next step is important – you need to consider which of the items are dangerous and which ones you should leave alone. In general, asbestos products are categorised into two major groups, depending on how easy it is to damage them and expose yourself to airborne fibres.

Friable asbestos

Friable asbestos products are those that crumble easily under your unarmed strength. You can damage, rip apart and break entirely these products with your own hands and without using any tools. This makes them highly likely of releasing asbestos fibres into the air.

Examples of friable asbestos materials are thermal insulation, insulation boards, pipe lagging, and sprayed coatings. These can all be found in older buildings, in various quantity.

These products are the most hazardous to your health as you may be exposed to asbestos after accidental damage or without even realising. If you encounter such materials in your home, you should isolate the area and immediately contact the duty holder and arrange a safety inspection of the property.

Non-friable asbestos

These are materials and products which are sturdy and reasonably resistant to damage and abrasion. You cannot damage them just using your hands. They are less likely to release asbestos fibres under normal exploitation. These products, if found in good condition, should be left alone and monitored over time.

Examples of non-friable asbestos include vinyl floor tiles, cement sheets, bitumen products and textured decorative coatings (such as Artex).

It’s important to note that any non-friable asbestos material will become friable with time. Weathering and normal wear and tear will naturally deteriorate the structural integrity of any construction. So, if your property is of considerable age and has not gone through renovations, it’s likely that even these non-friable asbestos products are exhibiting some hazard to your health.

After determining the friability of all items in your list, the final step in your assessment is to get them lab tested in order to confirm their asbestos contents. There are many services that you can hire to test the materials.

The Tenants’ Voice recommends the DIY Asbestos sampling kits by Asbestos-sampling.com. You can purchase a DIY kit with instructions on how to safely acquire a sample of the material in question and send it to the lab for analysis. They are cheap, easy to use and will usually give you same-day results. You can find more information about them here.

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Asbestos-related diseases and sicknesses

The Health and Safety Executive estimates that as many as 20 tradespeople may be dying every week due to exposure to asbestos and its related diseases. As much as 5000 people die every year in the UK.

Asbestos has been banned for 18 years, however, many older buildings, cars and especially ships still contain hundreds, if not thousands, of parts and materials made from asbestos.

Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is an aggressive type of cancer that develops in the protective lining that covers the lungs, stomach, heart and other organs. It’s almost always the result of prolonged exposure to asbestos. Although there are certain medical advancements in its treatment, mesothelioma remains an incurable disease.

In 2013, a total of 2,538 UK residents died from mesothelioma.

The most often variation of the sickness attacks the soft tissue of the lungs. Symptoms include shortness of breath, chest pain and persistent dry cough. Other types of mesothelioma attack the lining of the stomach (20% of all cases) and the lining of the heart – the rarest type.

Mesothelioma takes a lot of time to develop and often the symptoms appear 20-50 years after the asbestos exposure has taken place. This is why most patients get diagnosed later in life (over 65 years old) and, more often than not, in an advanced stage.

Gender distribution is approximately 80% men to 20% women mostly due to the type of occupation. Asbestos was widely used in industries where fewer women worked during the 19th and 20th century, like construction, industrial manufacturing, shipbuilding and firefighting. However, in recent years, the number of diagnosed women rose three times as much than the number of diagnosed men.

Asbestosis

Asbestosis develops over prolonged exposure to asbestos fibres, usually years. The sickness permanently damages the lungs and prohibits their normal function. Patients diagnosed with the illness find themselves short of breath and easily fatigued.

Because the lungs are impaired, people with asbestosis cannot do much physical work and easily get tired. Other symptoms include chest pain, persistent cough and swollen fingertips.

People with asbestosis are more vulnerable to other lung illnesses, including flu, pneumonia, mesothelioma and lung cancer.

You can live for many years with asbestosis, even decades, but as time passes, the sickness usually gets worse, so you will be required to take more and more effective measures to combat the symptoms.

In 2014, there were 431 deaths, where the death certificate mentioned asbestosis, but not mesothelioma. In 2015, 1175 new asbestosis cases were assessed for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB).