The health risks from asbestos material still hidden in both public, commercial and residential properties around the UK are all too often an asbestos awareness blind spot with some property owners and the building contractors they hire to carry out renovations.

Time and time again, failure to undertake a proper risk assessment and the required procedure when asbestos is discovered, was simply due to not recognising the presence of asbestos-containing material and its removal along with all other building waste in a contractor’s skip.

Asbestos insulation – most often in the form of wallboard, textured and sprayed coatings, corrugated roofing and cement products – can be found in a friable ( fragile and disintegrating) condition. When handled, fibres are easily released into the surrounding atmosphere, which can also occur when asbestos is first uncovered when subject to drilling, scraping, abrasives, etc.

Inhaled asbestos fibres remain permanently lodged within the linings of the lungs, the irritation often leading to pleural plaques (scarring of the lung lining) or asbestosis disease – fibrous thickening of the lung itself. Cells can also turn cancerous, forming the malignant and incurable tumours of mesothelioma.

The unusually long gestation period of up to 50 years means the first asbestosis symptoms do not appear until the disease is at an advanced stage and a patient prognosis can be as little as 4 months.

Revisions to the Control of Asbestos Regulations, which introduced a reduction in the Control limits for all types of asbestos in November 2006 (CAR 2006), should have helped to clarify the action needed to be taken when a building firm uncovers different types of asbestos material.

Essentially, a licensed asbestos contractor is required to correctly contain and dispose of asbestos unless the work involves exposure of a sporadic and low intensity, i.e. does not cause the ten minute limit of 0.6f/cm3 (f/ml) or the 4 hour control limit of 0.1f/cm3 (f/ml) to be exceeded.

Under the 2006 revision, if a risk assessment shows that either of the limits are likely to being exceeded, then the work is considered to be not ‘sporadic and low intensity’ – and a licensed asbestos contractor must be immediately contacted.

However, confusion may arise because the revised Regulations state that the removal of textured coatings is no longer a part of the requirement to use a licensed asbestos contractor. As a result, identifying the crucial difference between an asbestos cement product and other materials demands a more detailed and time consuming process.

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) publish the ACoP (Approved Code of Practice) ‘Work with Materials Containing Asbestos’ (CAR 2006)’ (L143), which sets out procedures for where a licensed is either mandatory or not required.