The term, Asbestos, refers to six naturally occurring silicate minerals which are composed of microscopic fibres. If you breathe in these fibres, then they can seriously damage your lungs causing a range of harmful and potentially terminal diseases.
Asbestos is now known to cause a variety of serious and fatal lung diseases but it has only been relatively recently that the connection between these diseases and asbestos has become firmly established.
Around 4,000-5,000 people die each year in the UK from asbestos-related diseases despite the decline in its usage which began in the 1970s as the connection between the product and lung disease became unacceptable. These figures do not reveal the devastating impact the diagnosis an asbestos-related disease can have. The conditions frequently have a terminal outcome and involve the sufferer in months if not years of a significantly decreased quality of life with discomfort and pain and ultimately, no cure. Asbestos is now banned in new buildings and has been since 1999, however, there are plenty of buildings in existence throughout the UK which still contain asbestos. In 2005, asbestos was banned throughout the European Union but interestingly its use is still permitted in the construction industry in America although under close restriction.
Why was asbestos so popular before the risks were known?
Asbestos has a long history that dates back centuries with some very early documentary evidence of its usage (and its potentially harmful side effects) but it didn’t really come to prominence until the Industrial Revolution.
Asbestos is resistant to heat, water and chemicals and so it made an excellent insulator for turbines, boilers, steam engines, ovens and electrical generators. It was also a malleable product which meant it could be used to build, bind and strengthen.
Within buildings, asbestos was used for insulation, flooring materials and roofing and was also sprayed on ceilings and walls as a fire-resistant coating. Asbestos had myriad uses and appeared in hundreds of different products and forms including:-
• Asbestos cement
• Insulation for electric wiring
• Roofing and flooring compounds
• Thermal insulation for homes and offices
• Clutches in planes and cars
• Electrical panel components
• Packing materials
• Fillers and reinforcement for textured plasters and paints
• Spray-on fire retardant coating
How is asbestos managed?
The 2012 Control of Asbestos Regulations set out a protocol to manage the possible presence of asbestos and any risks which may flow from this.
• Identification – establishing whether asbestos is present or likely to be present, pinpointing its location and the condition it is in. The default assumption is to assume asbestos is present if the building pre-dates 2000 and unless there is any evidence to the contrary. It is usually necessary to instruct specialists to determine the presence and extent of any ACMs via Asbestos Management Surveys or, where intrusive works or complete demolition are scheduled, Asbestos Refurbishment or Demolition Surveys respectively
• Recording – keeping a log of the location and condition of the ACMs, this has a minimum requirement of an annual inspection. You should also keep a record of the steps you took if you conclude that asbestos is not present, how you reached this landing point and what evidence you have to support it
• Assessing – understanding the potential risk from the ACM based on its type, location and condition, this will probably require input from a specialist Asbestos Surveyor who should be suitably accredited or certified to undertake this inspection and with the appropriate liability insurance. If necessary, a sample can be tested by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) and then the specialist can advise on the best course of action to manage it
• Planning – this sets out risk management and the steps needed, if any, to implement the plan. ACMs which are going to remain undisturbed probably only need regular checking for their condition, this would differ from ACMs in an area where contractors were required to carry out work
• Review – demonstrating a review process for in-situ asbestos to note the location and any changes in its condition
• Information – having ready access to this information for anyone who is likely to work on it or who is liable to disturb it
What are the procedures and protocols for asbestos management?
There remain in the UK many buildings which still contain asbestos in one form or another. There are three main types of asbestos commonly found in premises and these are:-
• Blue Asbestos or Crocidolite
• Brown Asbestos or Amosite
• White Asbestos or Chrysotile
All are dangerous and despite their names, cannot be identified solely by their colour. Blue and Brown Asbestos is more hazardous than White.
The governance of asbestos in these properties for non-domestic buildings and the communal areas of domestic buildings – halls, stairwells, lift shafts and roof spaces – is currently defined by the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012. These regulations define who is responsible for the asbestos and they are described as having ‘the duty to manage’. This may be:-
• The owner of the building
• Someone responsible through a contract or tenancy agreement
• A controller of the building but with no formal contract or agreement
• The owner of a multi-occupancy building who has taken responsibility
People occupying buildings that contain asbestos must cooperate with the nominated duty holder. The main challenge occurs when a property requires building repairs or building maintenance and asbestos is present potentially putting both contractors and the occupants at risk.
Asbestos is only a risk to health if the fibres are disturbed, released into the atmosphere and then breathed in. If the asbestos can be identified and left intact and undisturbed then it poses a very low risk to human health. The danger comes when the presence of asbestos is unknown or unidentified, the asbestos is in poor condition or when protocols are not followed in terms of asbestos identification and management. The situation can be complex:-
• Some asbestos-containing materials also called ACMs are more vulnerable to damage than others and therefore more likely to release harmful fibres into the atmosphere
• The percentage of asbestos contained within the ACM is relevant and generally, the higher the percentage of asbestos in the ACM, the more easily the structure can be damaged, releasing harmful fibres
• It is important to understand how the asbestos is present in the product, for example, in asbestos cement, the percentage of asbestos is quite low usually only 10% to 15%. Further, the asbestos is tightly bound into the cement and so is unlikely to give off harmful fibres unless it is damaged or broken or, it is drilled into or cut into
• The remedial or repair work being carried out can impact on the potential to release asbestos; work with power tools can create a high fibre release
What are the diseases associated with breathing in asbestos fibres?
There are four main diseases associated with Asbestos and these are:-
• Asbestosis – this causes scarring of the lung tissue, it is a non-malignant disease
• Asbestos-related lung cancer
• Mesothelioma – this is a type of cancer which mainly affects the lining of the lungs
• Non-malignant pleural disease
The symptoms of asbestos-related diseases can take many years even decades before they make their presence felt. Around 4,500 people in the UK die every year from asbestos-related diseases but many of these will have been contracted at a time when the dangers of asbestos were not as well known and the material was not banned.
Where ACMs are to remain in situ, they must be left undisturbed and their condition checked and recorded on an annual basis. There are ways of removing some asbestos intact so without risk to human health for safe and specialist disposal or, ACMs can be encapsulated which is the application of impervious material over and around the ACM as a protective layer preventing potentially harmful disintegration or destruction of the ACM if it cannot be easily removed. This decision will depend upon the original process of construction and the current condition of the ACM and whether the ACM may be disturbed or damaged during repair or refurbishment works.
The dangers of asbestos is not breaking news anymore but the risks of ACMs are still very real and widespread with the protocols defined by the legislation there to protect the occupants of any buildings which contain ACMs and the people who work on and repair these structures. Governance and control are tight so the risks from asbestos these days as a risk material are very low and there is clear guidance about how to manage asbestos safely or remove it if it is present. It can sometimes require some detective work dating back to the time when the building was originally constructed and the opinion of specialists to absolutely identify and confirm ACMs, but there are plenty of available resources in the marketplace to assist property owners with this task so they can comply with their legal duty.