As severe rainfall and consequential flooding continues around the UK, there is an increased risk of damaged or disturbed asbestos fibres being released as dust into the surrounding atmosphere, even from types of asbestos materials normally considered relatively safe.

According to an asbestos management review conducted in 2011, it was advised that there should be a reassessment of the risk potential posed by ‘bonded’ asbestos when subject to flooding, fire, high temperatures, as well as other categories of severe damage caused by extreme weather or natural disaster.

Properties known to have been built or previously renovated up until at least the mid 1980s are especially vulnerable. Despite the banning of the most toxic asbestos types and increasing asbestos awareness of the long term fatal health risks, white chrysotile asbestos continued to be used in building industry products, such as cement and textured ceiling coatings, right up until asbestos imports were banned in 1999.

Materials mixed with asbestos fibres to create insulating and fire retardant tiles were often used and can still be found in residential properties from private residences, housing estates and rented flats to public premises such as offices, workplaces, schools, nurseries, hospitals and retail stores.

The curly or ‘serpentine’ group of chrysotile white asbestos fibres was extremely well adapted to be used in ‘bonded’ asbestos products such as polyvinyl plastic floor tiles and stair nosings, commonly found in offices and factories, and notably in stairwells. When asbestos fibres are ‘bonded’ to another material, such as a cement or resin binder, the product cannot be crumbled, crushed or reduced to a powder by hand pressure when dry.

While most white asbestos materials are often discovered in a worn, damaged or friable (disintegrating) condition, polymer-formed plastics are generally more resistant to decomposition and the asbestos fibres remain protected for a longer period of time. Asbestos can also be present in bitumen adhesive used to affix the tiles to the floor and in the paper backing (100% chrysotile), also found on some linoleums.

Hard bonded asbestos was the most commonly found form of asbestos in the home, which was used in flat corrugated or compressed asbestos-cement sheeting used on garage roofs and walls, drainage or flue pipes and floor tiles. The mineral can also still be found in some warm air heating systems, storage heaters, and elsewhere.

However, when subject to prolonged and severe conditions of extreme weather or temperatures, there could be a likelihood of a breakdown of the integrity of material encapsulation, which could result in the release of asbestos fibre dust.

Once inhaled, asbestos fibres permanently embed in the lining of the lungs (pleura), eventually causing asbestosis diseases or the incurable malignant mesothelioma cancer. A long gestation period of up to 50 years from original exposure to appearance of asbestosis symptoms often means an advanced stage has been reached and life expectancy is little more than 4 – 12 months.

Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006, asbestos surveys are required to be carried out in advance of renovations or demolition of premises. Properties with severe structural damage could require an authorised and licensed asbestos removal to remove any asbestos-containing materials from the debris rather than attempt to clear potential hazardous waste by the property owner or tenant.