Asbestos – what does it actually look like? How can you know if you have been exposed to an asbestos–containing material? Questions of asbestos awareness are still important today simply because of the continued risk of potential exposure. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) estimate that around 1.8 million people across Britain are still in danger of breathing in the deadly fibres and at least 2,000 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed each year.

While continuing to be mostly found in schools, colleges, housing estates and factory sites, no property built or renovated before the 1970s or 80s can be completely discounted from containing asbestos materials. White chrysotile fibres were still being used in insulation and fireproof building materials for at least ten years after the ban on the most toxic asbestos types in the mid 1980s.

Most people are unlikely to know of a direct contact with asbestos

However, most people are unlikely to know if they have actually come into direct contact with the material. While some types of asbestos, such as AIB wallboard may be concealed behind several layers of paint, it’s also very likely that the other most commonly found asbestos materials – textured wall / ceiling coatings and garage roofing – are more easily detected.

The Land Registry state that a staggering 55 per cent of all industrial / commercial properties in the UK contain a chrysotile asbestos cement roof and a significant proportion of fly-tipping can involve broken up asbestos corrugated roofing sheets or wall board. Cement-based products containing asbestos as a water resistant strengthener, such as roofing, shingles or cladding tiles are considered ‘low risk’ because the fibre content is around 10 to 15 per cent.

Deterioration weakens the material to release fibre dust particles

However, age deterioration can weaken the material, making it porous and more likely to release fibre particles into the atmosphere. A further problem is that many asbestos cement roofs were also lined with internal asbestos cement panels or plasterboard panels lined with 100 per cent chrysotile asbestos paper. A damaged, leaking or otherwise weakened roof will also affect the internal panels or fibre boards and cause the damaged paper linings to release fibre dust particles.

Years of weathering can mean it’s almost impossible to know if a roof system contains asbestos. The only way that a property-owner, commercial or residential, can know for certain is to arrange for sample analysis and controlled waste removal.

A limited asbestos removal procedure

While it’s always recommended to use professional asbestos removal contractors or seek advice before commencing any handling of asbestos, homeowners or premises duty holders can undertake a limited removal of asbestos cement products but only if they keep to the following procedure:

  • Isolate the working area and keep everyone out who does not need to be there.
  • All personnel handling asbestos must wear the proprietary PPE ( personal protective equipment – Cat 3 Type 5/6 disposable coveralls to ensure asbestos fibres do not cross contaminate other clothing), and also includes special filter masks (FFP3 valved masks – not standard dust types).
  • Before starting work, reduce the possibility of fibre release by thoroughly soaking the material with a suitable wetting agent, e.g. washing-up liquid.
  • Remove panels in one complete piece and avoid surface disruption or weakening by using power tools. Use hand tools only to carefully undo fixing bolts, screws etc
  • Do not breaking asbestos-containing material into small pieces or drop from height into refuse skips.
  • Stack the removed sheets in the open and completely seal with plastic sheeting.
  • Never sweep or use a domestic vacuum to clear asbestos pieces, debris or dust. Only use a professional type “H” vacuum cleaner that complies with BS 5145.
  • All asbestos pieces must be securely sealed in UN certified heavy duty plastic bags.
  • The working area must be kept well-ventilated.
  • Any and all exposed skin must be thoroughly cleansed on completion of work.