All you need to know about Asbestos

This guide is written to give you a brief overview on asbestos – what it is, why it was used, where it can be found and what should be done if you either know or suspect that it is present.

For more detailed explanations on the legalities surrounding asbestos and your responsibilities as either a home owner or tradesperson please make use of the HSE’s website.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is the common name for a group of minerals that all have a similar composition. These particular minerals are composed of millions of microscopic fibres.

These minerals all have in common several useful properties – namely resistance to fire, heat and electricity – these desirable properties have led to it being used in many forms in the construction industry for many years. It was first used for some of these useful properties over 4000 years ago.

There are three main types of asbestos that are commonly encountered, they are often known by the names Blue, Brown and White.

Blue Asbestos – Crocidolite

Blue asbestos is the fibrous form of the material crocidolite, it is considered the most hazardous of the three types.

Brown Asbestos – Amosite

Brown asbestos is the common name for a form of asbestos made from the mineral amosite.

White Asbestos – Chrysotile

The most commonly encountered of the three forms of asbestos in the UK. It is made from the mineral chrysotile.

It should be noted that although they have ‘colour’ names, it is not always possible to identify the type of asbestos present through its colour alone, especially when the asbestos has been mixed with another type of material.

Why is asbestos dangerous?

It’s important to remember that when an asbestos containing material is intact and undamaged it does not generally present a risk. Where it becomes dangerous is when the asbestos containing material becomes damaged, which can lead to the creation of dust. This dust can become airborne, at which point it can be drawn into the lungs.

If this dust is inhaled into the lungs it remains present and can cause some severe medical conditions:

  • Asbestosis – This is a serious scarring of the lungs that is caused by a heavy exposure to asbestos fibres over a prolonged time period – normally years. It causes shortness of breath which can become worse and in extreme cases can be fatal.
  • Asbestos related lung cancer – This is the same as lung cancer caused by other causes, but it is the asbestos that acts as the trigger factor.
  • Mesothelioma – This is another form of cancer that occurs in the lungs as well as the lower digestive tract which is directly related in the majority of cases to asbestos exposure.
  • Pleural thickening – This generally occurs after a heavy instance of asbestos exposure. Essentially the lining of the lung thickens due to the exposure which can cause shortness of breath.

Where can asbestos be found?

Up until the year 2000 asbestos was still being used in the construction or refurbishment of homes, and as a result it is still a fairly common occurrence to encounter it.

It’s important to note that whilst asbestos on its own is reasonably easy to identify, it is rare to find it in this natural state. You are far more likely to encounter it combined with other materials to make a useful product.

Some of the more common products are:

  • Asbestos cement
  • Asbestos Insulating Board (AIB)
  • Asbestos textiles
  • Asbestos Composites

Asbestos can also be found in several other forms, for example, asbestos tiles were commonly used as a floor covering, pipe lagging around older water tanks and pipes can be asbestos based, older ceiling tiles where often asbestos based. Asbestos was also used as an additive in some decorative plaster finishes such as textured ceilings.

In and around the home, these different types of asbestos containing material can be found in a variety of places:

  • Asbestos cement – Asbestos cement – used in gutters, downpipes, water tanks, soffits and roofs
  • Asbestos Insulation Board – used in soffits, partition walls, behind fuse boxes/consumer units, behind fire places, around window frames,
  • Asbestos textiles – these can be found under floor tiles, in the back of fuse carries in older re wireable fuse boards
  • Asbestos composites – used for bath panels, window sills, toilet cisterns and seats

How can I identify if a material contains asbestos?

In a lot of cases there is no easy way to identify if a material contains asbestos. Although the locations and materials listed above can offer a general idea of what to look for, sometimes it is still difficult to tell. If you are unsure and suspect that there may be a risk of it being present, contact your local authorities environmental health officer for further guidance. The HSE also offer an interactive guide, which can help.

Non-licensed, Notifiable Non-licensed and Licensed Work

Work with asbestos is split into three different categories: (1) Non-licensed, (2) Notifiable Non-licensed and (3) Licensed work (depending on a variety of factors).

Non-licensed work

Some examples of non-licensed work can include the drilling/cutting of a decorative render containing asbestos to fit fixtures and fittings, such as lights. Removing an undamaged asbestos cement roof on a garage. For a full description of what is classed as non-licensed work, please visit the HSE.

Notifiable Non-Licensed Work

This is work that does not require a license to carry out, but is notifiable. The work needs to be notified to the relevant authority. The person/company performing the work will have to decide whether the work is notifiable or not. An example could be removing an asbestos cement off of a garage roof as in the above example, but during the removal the roof will be broken into smaller pieces.

Licensed Work

This is work involving asbestos that can only be carried by a person/company with the correct license to allow them to perform the work.

What are my responsibilities with asbestos as a homeowner?

If the asbestos containing material is in good condition, i.e. showing no signs of wear or damage than the HSE’s advice is to leave them where they are. If you have not had training for non-licensed asbestos work don’t attempt to remove or repair any material that you either know or suspect contains asbestos and again contact your local authorities environmental officer.

Although any tradesperson you employ in your home should be prepared and be aware of the risks around asbestos, if you are aware that there is asbestos present in your home, ensure that you inform any trades person who is carrying out work on your behalf.

What are my responsibilities with asbestos as a tradesperson?

It’s important to remember that as a tradesperson there is a high likelihood that you will at some point come into contact with materials containing asbestos. There are still approximately 20 tradespeople dying each week due to asbestos related diseases.

It is also important to remember that you have certain responsibilities under the health and safety at work act and the asbestos act when it comes to your own and others welfare. For an in-depth look at roles and responsibilities, please visit the HSE’s website.

The best rule of thumb to follow is that if the work you plan on carrying out is work that will involve disturbing something, which has the potential to contain asbestos and is not either notifiable or licensed work, is to treat it as if asbestos is present and follow the guidelines laid down by the HSE in their guidance documents.