Asbestos can be found anywhere – not just in the home or workplace. While it is believed there could still be asbestos containing materials (ACMs) hidden in more than half a million commercial and residential properties around the UK – especially schools, hospitals, factories and housing estates – asbestos can still be uncovered in unexpected locations.

From the 1940s onwards and up until the first ban in the mid 1980s, the use of asbestos fibres as an insulation and fireproofing material was widespread throughout British industry, from product manufacturing and building construction to vehicle assembly, railway engineering and shipbuilding.

Even after white asbestos imports were finally halted fifteen years ago, it is estimated that any structure, 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 ACMs. Our better understanding and asbestos awareness should constantly remind us all of a continuing, potential health risk.

Tunnel opened during rise in UK asbestos use

In May 2013, work on the Tyne pedestrian and cyclist tunnel connecting Howdon and Jarrow, was closed following the discovery of asbestos. Expected to be reopened by the summer, specialist contractors declared the problem was “worse than anticipated”, and it’s now expected that the tunnel will now not be fully cleared of asbestos until February 2015. The Grade II-listed tunnel was opened in 1951, during an escalating rise in UK asbestos use when nearly 123,500 tons of asbestos was imported, increasing the likelihood of its use in construction.

The presence of asbestos might also be reasonably assumed to be present in tunnels built and continually upgraded in older parts of the London Underground network. In February 2012, it was reported that “specific problem spots” were said to be located at the eastern end of the Central line, running along the tunnel walls from Mile End station.

Simply covered over the asbestos

First opened in the summer of 1900, the eastern branch of the Central Line began in December 1946, reaching as far as Stratford and extending to Epping and Ongar from 1949 to the mid 1950s. Redevelopment and refurbishment has continued and it has been claimed that London Underground simply covered over the asbestos with encapsulating paint, which could easily chip off and expose the deadly fibres.

However, Transport for London ( TfL) have stated that passengers and staff “are not at risk from exposure to asbestos fibres when travelling on the Underground”, and have established “robust” controls in accordance with the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006/12.

Found in remote areas

Asbestos can be encountered even as far afield as the Scottish highlands. It was recently reported that walkers and climbers were warned not to use a bothy – a basic shelter found in remote, mountainous areas, and usually left unlocked and available for anyone to use free of charge – after asbestos was found in the building.

Following a survey and the discovery of asbestos, the bothy, located close by to Ben Alder near the Cairngorms, was declared unsafe for public use and, according to the Mountain Bothies Association, likely to be demolished.

For most ordinary members of the public, contact with asbestos is likely only to occur while carrying out DIY decoration at home or during renovations in the workplace. However, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have reported that with at least 2,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed each year, there are around 1.8 million people who are still at risk of daily asbestos exposure.