Corrugated cement roofing is probably the most common and identifiable form of asbestos, which many property owners and building firms are likely to encounter whenever renovation, removal or demolition work is being carried out.

Most press stories report a lack of asbestos awareness – or, if known about – a disregard of the health risks during the removal of waste material, most often in the form of roofing panels, shingles or wallboard. The lack of a prior risk survey or a mandatory disposal procedure is often attributable to ‘time and cost saving’ by either or both contractor and property owner.

With more than 1.8 million people annually exposed each year to asbestos and at least 2,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed annually, the new Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, which came into force on the 6th April, aims to reduce disregard for health and safety on property renovations when there is still a potential hazard from exposure to asbestos.

Up until an import ban at the end of the 1990s, between 10 and 15 per cent of white chrysotile asbestos fibres continued to be used in the reinforcement of building insulation products made of cement. Throughout most of the peak period of use from the 1940s until the 1980s and 90s, asbestos was seen as an inexpensive insulating and fire-retardant material employed throughout UK construction as well as manufacturing, shipbuilding, auto and railway engineering.

Besides possessing heat insulation properties, asbestos cement is also weatherproof and was extensively used in the production of corrugated sheets, slates and soffits, sills, copings, chalkboards, fascias, infill panels, etc. Asbestos cement fibres were frequently made into moulded fittings for water cisterns, rainwater gutters, down pipes, pressure pipes, underground drainage and sewer pipes.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) there is an estimated four million properties around the UK, which are likely to contain hidden asbestos materials, most often found both inside and outside of buildings. Asbestos cement is hard and grey-coloured and looks like ordinary cement and it can be difficult to tell the difference between an asbestos cement product and a low-density insulation board. Corrugated asbestos cement found on garage roofs and sheds are the most easily identifiable followed by wall cladding, downpipes, gutters and flues found in boiler systems air conditioning and ventilation systems, water tanks, fire surrounds.

Building products exposed to weathering over many years are likely to be in a fragile condition and likely to fragment and release the deadly fibres into the air. Fibre release will most certainly take place if cement sheeting or moulded products are removed, dismantled and deliberately broken up for quick disposal via a standard building skip.

Inhaled fibres permanently lodged in the lung linings can cause tissue inflammation, which can also eventually lead to asbestosis disease or turn cells cancerous, forming the fatal tumours of mesothelioma cancer. Asbestosis symptoms only make themselves known after a gestation period of up to 40 or 50 years, and at the time of a confirmed diagnosis, the mesothelioma is, invariably, at an advanced stage, which often leaves the victim with less than 6 months to live.

Prevention of asbestos exposure and it’s safe disposal is, therefore, always crucial. Risk assessment must be carried out to uncover and identify any asbestos-containing material (ACM) and an evaluation of its condition before works begin.