News that the United Nations headquarters in New York City, USA was involved in an asbestos removal issue while undergoing its first major renovation since it was built 60 years ago once again spotlights asbestos awareness and the deadly health risks still present today in many buildings, irrespective of their status or wherever located.

It was not until the mid 1980s that legislation started to be introduced, which aimed at prohibiting the use of the most toxic amosite ( brown asbestos) and crocidolite ( blue asbestos) fibres in construction, manufacturing and engineering industries.

Yet, the use of chrysotile ( white asbestos) fibres by up to 10 to 15 per cent continued in the reinforcement of AIB (Asbestos Insulating Board), wall and ceiling tiles, textured and spray coatings, and other cement products until it was banned in 1999.

Unfortunately, the presence of asbestos may not be immediately apparent due to the cement surface being painted over or otherwise concealed until the premises is to be either renovated or demolished. Consequently, both private domestic and public commercial properties can still contain a sizeable quantity of the deadly mineral.

When uncovered today, it can be difficult to tell the difference between an asbestos cement product and a low-density insulation board but it may sensibly be assumed that any buildings constructed, converted or refurbished anytime up until the 1980s/90s should always be suspected of containing asbestos-containing products, which can include corrugated sheets, slates, moulded fittings, soffits, sills, copings, chalkboards, fascias, infill panels, etc

Any material uncovered during structural conversion, or general renovations, which appears to be in a “friable” (fragile, disintegrating) condition should also be considered as highly suspect and not handled until examined by licensed and approved asbestos disposal contractors to determine its exact properties.

During the recent UN building renovation, due to be completed by 2014, a safety issue arose as a result of a “miscommunication”, which led to the start of asbestos removal in the building before UN staff were able to vacate their present offices to a new temporary location.

There is always a health risk of asbestos fibres being released into the air if the material surface has been damaged or worn or worked upon by intensive cleaning, abrading, drilling or attempting to repair or remove. Once fibre dust particles are released they are easily inhaled, and will remain permanently embedded in the linings of the lungs, eventually causing asbestosis disease or the fatal, incurable cancer, mesothelioma.

The long gestation period of between 15 and 50 years from first exposure to the emergence of asbestosis symptoms when mesothelioma has, invariably, reached an advanced stage often means that the survival rate after confirmed diagnosis is less than six months.

The World Health Organization estimates that over 92,250 people around the world died of mesothelioma in a 15-year period from 1994 to 2008. In the UK, more than 1.8 million people are annually exposed to asbestos with at least 2,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed every year, according to the Health And Safety Executive (HSE).