One of the most common questions asked by the ordinary householder is how to recognise asbestos in their property, when they undertake renovation work. The second is the extent of risk when exposed to material they suspect of being asbestos.

The rule is that all asbestos is potentially extremely hazardous! However, it is important to know and understand the key difference between finding asbestos in a friable or non-friable state. In other words, the extent of disintegration and fragility of the asbestos material uncovered.

It is unfortunate indeed, that even today, asbestos awareness can so often be shrouded in confusion or completely lacking, as it seems to be the case when stories concerning building contractors and demolition firms are regularly reported in the press. Clear and comprehensive procedures are laid out by The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations, 2006, for commercial industry application to prevent any hazardous mishandling of any asbestos material encountered.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s and even possibly as late as the 1990s, construction firms could still be building or renovating private residences, housing estates, rented flats, offices and workplaces, schools, hospitals and other public building using materials mixed with asbestos, such as AIB (Asbestos Insulating Board), textured coatings, cement, plaster, adhesives, bonding tape as well as installing ceiling and flooring tiles mixed with asbestos fibres.

Throughout the twentieth century, tens of thousands of builders, carpenters, electricians, plumbers and plasterers were one of the major types of occupations regularly exposed to asbestos fibres, which eventually gave them the diseases of asbestosis or the fatal incurable cancer, mesothelioma. Once breathed in, the fibres remained within the linings of the lungs until the first asbestosis symptoms appeared between 15–50 years later, by which time the unfortunate victim would, maybe, only have a few months to live.

For the homeowner, it is important to know that the most dangerous forms of asbestos – crocidolite (blue asbestos) and amosite (brown asbestos) – were banned from use in the 1985 UK Asbestos (Prohibition) Regulations. However, the use of the less toxic but still dangerous chrysotile (white asbestos) was not added to the prohibition law until 1992. Nearly all of the asbestos that is likely to be encountered now is almost certain to be white chrysotile.

If a homeowner uncovers material within their property that they suspect may be white asbestos, it is vital not to touch the material any further. A visual inspection should indicate if the possible asbestos-containing material (ACM) is friable or non-friable, which will determine removal, disposal and safety methods required.

Friable asbestos would be easy to break or crumble by hand, instantly releasing asbestos fibres into the surrounding air.
Examples include: acoustic plaster, spray-applied insulation, duct connectors, insulation, pipe coverings, plumber’s putty, patching compounds, tremolite sand, vermiculite compounds.

Non-friable asbestos is not easy to break by hand and there is a low probability of releasing fibres into the air.
Examples include: asphalt/cement roofing products, base flashing, asbestos cement and cement pipes, siding, vinyl asbestos floor tile, vinyl wall coverings, packing material, gaskets.

It should also be noted that some forms of non-friable asbestos, which were mixed and contained within a ‘binding’ agent, e.g. cement, vinyl or resin, could have deteriorated over time and will also release fibres if damaged, sanded, cut, drilled or otherwise worked upon. These asbestos-containing materials should only be removed during renovation or demolition if they are in very poor condition. Examples include vinyl floor coverings, vinyl asbestos tile, asphalt roofing products and gaskets.

It is crucially important authorised asbestos removal contractors only should be contacted to correctly identify and safely remove and dispose of asbestos material when discovered.