The traditional festive break is often used as an opportunity to catch up on those long overdue, small DIY jobs that need to be attended to around the home. At the very least, this is likely to involve drilling, hammering, scraping or sandpapering wall or ceiling surfaces – and the probability of encountering hidden asbestos!

While this may be perceived as not a problem for those inhabiting properties built or refurbished in the last twenty or so years, according to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) there is a probability that asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) are still to be found in as many as half a million homes around the UK. More than 1.8 million people are annually exposed to asbestos with at least 2,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed every year.

Asbestos awareness of the risks posed by encountering the deadly insulation material widely used in the building industry up until the 1970s and 80s tend to be focused on builders, electricians and plumbers, who are more likely to uncover hidden asbestos in their daily work.

Just recently, a Carlisle builder aged only 59, who had been exposed to asbestos while regularly working on sheeting and soffits ( the underside of roofs) between 1969 and 1972, died just two months after being diagnosed with incurable malignant mesothelioma cancer.

While the most dangerous forms of asbestos – brown ( amosite) and blue ( crocidolite) – were banned from use by the 1985 UK Asbestos (Prohibition) Regulations, followed by the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations in 1987 to ensure tighter controls to prevent exposure to asbestos in the workplace, it was not until 1992 that white (chrysotile) asbestos was banned too.

However, because it was considered less hazardous, chrysotile continued to be used with building items like AIB (asbestos insulating board), textured surface coatings, boiler pipe lagging, sprayed loft insulation, cement roofing and side panels. It wasn’t until 1998 that a ban on AIB was introduced and all white asbestos use, prohibited by an European Commission ruling the following year, came into force, January 2005.

Given that asbestos was widely used as an industrial, commercial and domestic insulation material throughout much of the twentieth century, it would be sensible to assume that it could be still found in any property built or renovated during that time. The press regularly reports of builders finding asbestos in housing estates and residential dwellings as well as in schools, colleges and hospitals.

White asbestos is considered ‘low risk’ if it is discovered and immediately ‘managed’ by professional encapsulation or entirely removed and properly disposed of by authorised and approved a contractors. However, identifying and distinguishing asbestos from modern and identical looking materials can be difficult and any worn, damaged or discoloured wall board, surface coating, tile or infill packing which appears to be in a “ friable” (fragile, disintegrating) condition should be considered suspect and not handled until professionally analysed.

Any contact with asbestos poses a risk and handling can easily release fibre dust particles into the surrounding air. Once inhaled, the fibres remain permanently embedded in the linings of the lungs (pleura) or stomach ( peritoneum), which can eventually cause asbestosis disease or fatal mesothelioma tumours.

There is a long gestation period of between 15 and 50 years from first exposure to the appearance of asbestosis symptoms when mesothelioma has often reached an advanced stage. Patient survival rates after a confirmed diagnosis tend to be between 6 and 12 months.