The long Easter weekend is often used as a time to finally get round to minor house repairs and even a spot of decorating left over from the year before! Campaigns to increase asbestos awareness of the potential health risks have meant that it’s not so unusual to find warnings posted around the internet of unexpectedly uncovering hidden asbestos, especially if a property was built or renovated up to the 1980s.

A 1985 survey of over 2.2 million council houses conducted by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities (AMA) estimated that there could be between two and four million homes constructed of lightweight building materials containing hidden asbestos.

Following the 1999 ban on the import of white asbestos (chrysotile), by 2003 it was suggested that there was around six million tonnes of asbestos, which remained hidden in properties throughout the UK, a significant proportion of which could be found in commercial and industrial premises.

In August 2011, a Freedom of Information request revealed that more than 6 in 10 of 12,000 council properties surveyed in the Stoke On Trent area were found to contain asbestos. Any property, especially in the Public sector, built or renovated up until the end of the twentieth century is liable to contain between 5 per cent and 30 per cent of asbestos containing materials (ACMs).

One problem facing owners of properties of at least 25 years old, is distinguishing between modern asbestos-free materials and an asbestos–containing material, which look almost identical.

As a general guide for assessing the likelihood of uncovering asbestos in an older domestic property, around thirty per cent could be present in the form of Artex textured and sprayed ceiling coatings and wall cladding. A further ten to fifteen per cent may be found in other forms of insulation used to manufacture cement panel ceilings, lagging around boiler flue pipes and ducts, cold water storage tanks, cement roofing panels and roofing felt, roof eaves, soffits, gutters, and rainwater pipes.

Many homeowners will know about the use of asbestos to strengthen Artex textured coatings, which was a popular and widespread interior design feature. However, it’s likely that fewer people will know that their house insurance policies are only likely to cover the removal of asbestos as part of a damage claim, and not simply because asbestos happens to have been identified, according to the Association of British Insurers.

Furthermore, under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006/12, suspect asbestos samples must be taken for laboratory analysis from several different locations around the house because the presence of asbestos fibres was not uniformly distributed in the manufacturing process.

HSE generally advise that white asbestos may not pose undue risk when it is left undisturbed and is properly contained and managed when found. However, any repairs or decoration which involves, for example, drilling, scraping or sandpapering may disturb hidden asbestos and the fibre dust being released into the air.

Once breathed in the fibres can embed themselves within the pleural linings causing mesothelioma cancer or asbestosis disease to develop over a period of 15 – 50 years before asbestosis symptoms first appear.

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) estimate that there could still be around a half a million households across England and Wales likely to contain asbestos materials. HSE also say that more than 1.8 million people are annually exposed to asbestos with at least 2,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed every year.