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Knowledge Base » Health and Safety » Recognising Asbestos in Old Buildings and Homes

Recognising Asbestos in Old Buildings and Homes

According to a report published by ResPublica, an estimated six million tonnes of asbestos remain inside 1.5 million buildings in the UK, including in schools and hospitals. ResPublica estimates that 80% of schools in the UK contain asbestos, and 74% of universities. 

Asbestos is no longer used in the construction of new buildings in the UK. However, it was a commonly used building material in the past due to its fire-resistant properties and durability. Many buildings which were constructed before the year 2000 may still contain asbestos in various forms, such as in insulation, roofing and flooring.

The UK has strict regulations in place regarding the management and removal of asbestos in order to minimise the associated health risks. The importation, supply and use of all asbestos has been banned in the UK since 1999.

Asbestos is not considered to be harmful when in large pieces and undamaged; however, when asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) are disturbed or damaged, microscopic fibres are released into the air. These can then be inhaled or ingested which poses significant health risks. 

Inhalation of asbestos fibres can occur when asbestos-containing materials deteriorate or are disturbed, releasing microscopic particles into the air. Once inhaled, these fibres can become lodged in the lungs, which can cause inflammation and scarring over time. Breathing in asbestos can lead to a condition called asbestosis which leads to an increased susceptibility to cancer. 

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral fibre that has been used in various construction and industrial applications. It is known for its unique properties, as it is resistant to heat, fire and many chemicals, and it is also very durable and flexible. As a result, asbestos was once a widely used material in insulation, roofing, fireproofing and various other common products. 

Asbestos has commonly been used for:

  • Construction materials – asbestos was commonly used in construction materials such as roofing shingles, cladding and cement pipes. It was useful for its durability and fire resistance.
  • Insulation – asbestos was widely used for insulation purposes in buildings, ships and industrial facilities. It was commonly found in materials such as asbestos blankets, asbestos paper and asbestos-containing sprays.
  • Fireproofing – asbestos-containing materials were used for fireproofing purposes in buildings, especially in the form of spray-applied coatings.
  • Textiles – asbestos fibres were used in textiles for their heat-resistant properties. This included fireproof clothing, gloves and other items of protective clothing.
  • Automobile parts – asbestos was used in various automobile components, including brake pads and linings, clutch facings and gaskets. It was useful due to its heat resistance and friction properties.
  • Flooring – asbestos was present in some vinyl flooring and floor tiles. It was used as it provided durability and was fire resistant.
  • Pipes and boilers – asbestos was used in the manufacture of pipes and boiler insulation materials.

There are three main types of asbestos:

  • Blue (crocidolite).
  • Brown (amosite).
  • White (chrysotile).

Exposure to all three types of asbestos is hazardous and has been linked to serious health risks. None of the three types of asbestos can be used, sold or imported into the UK.

There are a number of serious diseases related to asbestos exposure; these include:

  • Lung cancer – exposure to asbestos increases the risk of developing lung cancer, particularly among people who smoke. Lung cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the lungs. The lungs are the respiratory organs that take oxygen in when you inhale and release carbon dioxide when you exhale. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. In the UK lung cancer has high mortality rates. Cancer Research UK found that between 2016 and 2018 there were 48,549 new lung cancer diagnoses.
  • Other respiratory diseases – asbestos exposure can contribute to other respiratory problems, including pleural plaques and pleurisy. Pleurisy is inflammation of the sheet-like layers that cover the lungs. The most common symptom of pleurisy is a sharp pain in the chest when breathing deeply. Sometimes the pain can also be felt in the shoulder.
  • Asbestosis – long-term exposure to asbestos fibres can cause scarring of the lung tissue, a condition known as asbestosis. This can cause symptoms including difficulty breathing, coughing and permanent lung damage.
  • Mesothelioma – asbestos exposure is a well-established cause of mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer which affects the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart. The symptoms are similar to those of many other respiratory or lung conditions. Mesothelioma kills over 2,500 people each year. The symptoms of mesothelioma include chest pain, a dry cough, fatigue, fever, muscle weakness, shortness of breath, swelling of the face and arms and unexplained weight loss. Symptoms can also vary between people.
Asbestos in old homes

Identifying asbestos-containing materials (ACMs)

Identifying asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) can be challenging because asbestos fibres are often mixed with other materials and are not easily detectable without using specialised equipment. The presence of asbestos cannot be confirmed visually, and it requires testing by a certified asbestos inspector or laboratory.

There are some common building materials and areas where asbestos may be found:

  • Insulation – asbestos was commonly used in insulation materials such as loose-fill insulation, pipe insulation and insulating boards.
  • Flooring – vinyl floor tiles, sheet flooring and the adhesive used to install them may contain asbestos.
  • Ceiling tiles – some older ceiling tiles and acoustic tiles contain asbestos.
  • Roofing materials – asbestos may be found in roofing shingles, felt and cladding.
  • Textured paints and coatings – asbestos was often used in textured paints and coatings applied to ceilings and walls.
  • Plaster – some older homes may have asbestos-containing plaster.
  • HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) duct insulation – asbestos was used to insulate heating and cooling ducts in some older buildings.
  • Pipes – asbestos-containing materials were commonly used to insulate pipes for heating systems and plumbing.
  • Cement products – asbestos was added to cement products such as corrugated sheets, pipes and flat sheets.
  • Fireproofing materials – asbestos was used in fireproofing sprays and materials applied to structural steel and other surfaces.

Age of the building

Older buildings are generally considered to have a higher likelihood of having asbestos-containing materials. Asbestos was commonly used in construction materials until its health risks became widely recognised. Buildings which were constructed before the 1980s are more likely to contain asbestos-containing materials. The use of asbestos was heavily regulated in the UK starting from the 1980s due to its known health risks. However, it wasn’t until 1999 that its use was banned completely. Therefore, buildings constructed or renovated before 2000 have the potential to contain asbestos.

Regulations regarding the use of asbestos in construction have become increasingly stringent over time. Newer buildings are less likely to contain asbestos because regulations have restricted or banned its use in many products. 

Inspection and testing

In the UK, inspection and testing of asbestos are governed by strict regulations to ensure the safety of workers and the public. The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (CAR) is the primary legislation that governs the management and handling of asbestos-containing materials in the UK. The CAR regulations require duty holders, such as building owners and employers, to identify and manage asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) within their premises. This includes conducting asbestos surveys and risk assessments, and implementing management plans in order to control the risks associated with asbestos. Asbestos surveys are conducted to identify the presence, location and condition of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) within a building or structure. There are two main types of surveys. A management survey is used to locate and assess the condition of ACMs that could be disturbed during normal occupancy and routine maintenance. A refurbishment/demolition survey is a more intrusive survey which is required before refurbishment or demolition work takes place. It aims to identify all ACMs within the area of the refurbishment or demolition works. 

Asbestos in old buildings

Signs of potential ACMs

Signs of ACMs may vary depending on the type of material and its condition. Some common indicators include:

  • Visual identification – some ACMs are visually identifiable. They may be in the form of fibrous material or textured coatings. Common materials include insulation, pipe and duct insulation, ceiling tiles, floor tiles, roofing materials, and textured coatings like popcorn ceilings. However, not all ACMs are visible to the naked eye. A professional asbestos inspector can conduct a thorough inspection to identify ACMs. This typically involves a visual assessment and may include sampling for laboratory analysis.
  • Age of the building – buildings constructed before the 1980s are more likely to contain asbestos, especially if they haven’t been renovated or updated since then.
  • Building documentation – if available, building plans, construction records or documentation from previous renovations may indicate the use of ACMs.
  • Damage or deterioration – asbestos-containing materials may deteriorate over time, releasing fibres into the air. Signs of damage such as crumbling, flaking or water damage should be taken seriously and properly investigated.
  • Occupational history of the building – previous activities in a building, such as maintenance or renovation work, may provide clues to the presence of ACMs.

When in doubt, consulting with a qualified asbestos professional or environmental consultant can provide accurate identification and guidance on managing or removing ACMs safely.

Common areas to check

Asbestos was commonly used in various building materials due to its heat resistance and durability before its health hazards were fully understood. Checking for asbestos in older buildings is crucial. Common areas to check for asbestos include:

  • Insulation.
  • Popcorn ceilings.
  • Vinyl floor tiles.
  • Walls.
  • Roofing.
  • Pipes and ducts.
  • HVAC systems.
  • Cement and plaster.
  • Electrical components.

DIY renovations and precautions

Renovating older homes that may contain asbestos requires careful planning and precautions in order to ensure the safety of everyone involved. The following precautions can be taken:

  • Assume asbestos is present – if your home was built before the 1980s, assume that it contains asbestos in various materials such as insulation, floor tiles, ceiling tiles, roofing shingles and cladding.
  • Get a professional asbestos inspection – before starting any renovation work, hire a certified asbestos inspector to assess the presence and condition of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) in your home. They will conduct thorough testing and provide recommendations for safe removal.
  • Handle materials carefully – if you suspect materials may contain asbestos, avoid disturbing them unnecessarily. Asbestos is most dangerous when its fibres become airborne, therefore do not cut, drill, sand or otherwise disturb the material.
  • Use personal protective equipment (PPE) – when working around potential asbestos-containing materials, you should wear appropriate personal protective equipment.
  • Work in well-ventilated areas – conduct renovations in well-ventilated areas in order to minimise the concentration of airborne asbestos fibres. Open windows and doors and use fans in order to improve the airflow in the area.
  • Minimise dust generation – use techniques that minimise the generation of dust, such as wetting materials with a fine mist of water before cutting or removing them. This helps to suppress asbestos fibres from becoming airborne.
  • Contain areas – you can do this by sealing off the work area from the rest of the house using plastic sheeting and tape in order to prevent the spread of asbestos fibres. Clearly mark the area with warning signs to alert others.
  • Dispose of waste properly – follow local regulations for disposal and transport them to approved hazardous waste facilities.
  • Consider professional removal – in some cases, it may be safer and more practical to hire licensed asbestos professionals to remove potential asbestos-containing materials. They have the training, experience and equipment necessary to safely handle asbestos.
  • Clean up thoroughly – after completing renovation work, clean the work area thoroughly using wet cleaning methods such as damp mopping or HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) vacuuming to remove any remaining dust or debris. Dispose of cleaning materials and PPE properly.
  • Monitor air quality – consider conducting air monitoring both during and after renovation work in order to ensure that asbestos fibre levels remain within safe limits.
  • Educate yourself – familiarise yourself with local regulations regarding asbestos handling and disposal in order to ensure compliance with legal requirements.

Legal obligations and regulations

In the UK, homeowners and landlords have legal obligations regarding asbestos management to ensure the safety of occupants and workers. 

  • Identification and assessment – homeowners and landlords have a legal duty to identify any asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) within their properties. This usually involves hiring a qualified asbestos surveyor to conduct a survey in order to locate and assess the condition of any asbestos which is present.
  • Conduct a risk assessment – once identified, homeowners and landlords must assess the risk posed by the asbestos-containing materials. This includes considering factors such as the condition of the asbestos, the likelihood of disturbance, and the potential exposure to occupants or workers.
  • Develop a management plan – based on the risk assessment, a management plan should be developed in order to outline how the asbestos-containing materials will be managed safely. This may involve encapsulating, sealing or removing the asbestos, depending on the level of risk.
  • Notification and record-keeping – homeowners and landlords are required to keep a record of any asbestos-containing materials present in their properties, as well as any actions taken to manage them. They may also need to notify tenants or contractors about the presence of asbestos and its location within the property.
  • Safe handling and removal – if asbestos removal is necessary, it must be carried out by licensed asbestos removal contractors who follow strict safety procedures. Homeowners and landlords must ensure that proper precautions are taken to minimise the risk of exposure to asbestos fibres during the removal process.
  • Training and information – those people who are responsible for managing asbestos in properties should receive appropriate training and information in order to ensure that they understand their duties and how to safely manage asbestos-containing materials.
  • Duty to manage – the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 imposes a ‘duty to manage’ asbestos on those responsible for non-domestic properties, including landlords. This duty requires them to take reasonable steps to identify and manage asbestos within their properties in order to protect occupants and workers.
Recognising Asbestos

Safe removal and disposal

The removal and replacement of asbestos should be carried out by trained and certified professionals due to the health risks associated with asbestos exposure. Asbestos removal and replacement is not an easy process in itself and there are several steps that need to be followed, including:

  • An assessment and survey should be completed – before any removal or replacement work begins, a comprehensive asbestos survey is conducted by certified inspectors in order to identify the location, type and condition of asbestos-containing materials in the building.
  • Notification and regulation compliance – the Health and Safety Executive must be notified at least 14 days before starting any asbestos removal work.
  • Isolation and preparation of the area – the work area is isolated in order to prevent asbestos fibres from spreading. Workers are required to wear PPE including respiratory masks and disposable coveralls.
  • Wetting – asbestos is often wet to minimise the release of fibres during removal.
  • Removal – trained and licensed asbestos removal contractors will remove the asbestos materials using only specialised tools and techniques.
  • Cleaning – the area is thoroughly cleaned using wet methods and HEPA vacuum cleaners in order to ensure any remaining asbestos fibres are fully removed.
  • Waste disposal process – asbestos waste is transported to licensed disposal sites using only approved transport methods.
  • A final inspection is completed – this is to confirm the successful removal of the asbestos.

All asbestos removal work must comply with HSE regulations. 

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About the author

Claire Vain

Claire Vain

Claire graduated with a degree in Social Work in 2010. She is currently enjoying her career moving in a different direction, working as a professional writer and editor. Outside of work Claire loves to travel, spend time with her family and two dogs and she practices yoga at every opportunity!

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