The annual Easter break can be an opportunity for homeowners to catch up on DIY jobs or perhaps a more intensive renovation, especially in older properties where the intention is to restore or reconstruct original features.

However, it’s often not realised that there is an estimated half a million houses around the country built before the 1980s and 90s, which are likely to contain asbestos material hidden beneath floor, ceiling or wall tiles, decorative boards or behind layers of paint.

Asbestos awareness has been the mainstay of many campaigns led by organisations, including The British Lung Foundation, who just this week launched their latest initiative “ Take 5 And Stay Alive”, aimed at alerting householders to take thorough precautions before attempting any decoration around the home.

It can be mistakenly thought that risk from asbestos exposure is consigned to Britain’s past, when the fibres were extensively used in many building, manufacturing and engineering industries. According to the British Lung Foundation, a new survey found that national asbestos awareness levels were still extremely low with “around three quarters of women and 25-34 year-olds of both sexes unable to confidently identify asbestos in the home”.

While the most dangerous forms of asbestos were banned in 1985, white (chrysotile) asbestos continued to be used in the building industry as an insulation product for at least another ten years until an import ban in 1999 and a final ban on all use in 2005.

This means many commercial and domestic properties, including entire housing estates, flats and maisonettes less than 30 years old, may have been constructed with building materials such as AIB (asbestos insulating board), textured surface coatings, boiler pipe lagging, sprayed loft insulation and cement roofing and side panels.

White (chrysotile) asbestos is considered ‘low risk’ when properly and safely ‘managed’ by authorised encapsulation and containment planning in public domains, such as in schools and hospitals built during the twentieth century. However, any exposure to asbestos can be a risk to health, especially if unexpectedly uncovered.

As the British Lung Foundation survey revealed, identifying and distinguishing asbestos from more modern and identical looking materials can be difficult. Any worn, damaged or discoloured wall board, surface coating, tile or infill packing, which appears to be in a “friable” (fragile, disintegrating) condition must be treated with extreme caution and not handled until professionally analysed.

Before any dismantling, drilling, scraping or ‘rubbing down’ of any surface, it is advised to always wear gloves, protective clothing, goggles, breathing mask, hair covering, etc. 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 the fatal and incurable mesothelioma cancer.

A long gestation period of up to 50 years is known to elapse before the first asbestosis symptoms emerge, often when the disease is at an advanced stage. From a confirmed diagnosis, survival rates are often less than 6 months.

According to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) more than 1.8 million people are annually exposed to asbestos with at least 2,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed every year.