Half of all households around the UK could still contain asbestos hidden within the fabric of the building, according to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE).

This is because asbestos fibres were only banned from being used as insulation in building materials from the mid 1980s onwards. Any residential property, from a private dwelling to a council estate flat, which was built or renovated at any time up to 25 years ago cannot be discounted from the possibility of containing asbestos, mostly to be found in insulation wallboard (AIB), soffits, corrugated cement roof sheeting or tiles.

Finding that a garage roof, an extension or outbuilding is covered with white asbestos cement sheeting is still possible in residential properties as well as in commercial or industrial units. Despite all asbestos types now classified as a Class 1 carcinogenic, white asbestos was considered “low risk” and still used years after the first ban was introduced.

It’s highly unlikely that most people would not have some asbestos awareness of the potential risk of exposure, and have heard or read about the serious harm and suffering endured by those unfortunate victims diagnosed with asbestos-related cancer. The construction industry continues to regularly provide training for builders and tradesmen to help them understand about carrying out asbestos surveys and safe disposal procedures.

Inadequate or no protection

However, it is regularly reported that small building firms appear to simply ignore the regulations and allow their workers to remove asbestos materials with either inadequate or no protection at all – for themselves or others likely to be exposed.

Reports of negligent handling and removal of asbestos materials tend to come from either commercial or local authority renovation or demolition projects. Failure to observe procedures can also take place in a residential setting – the most extreme evidence of which, is the instances of illegal flytipping of broken up corrugated asbestos roof sheeting.

Recently, a building contractor was found guilty of exposing workers and homeowners to potentially fatal asbestos fibres during work on a garage extension at a home in Ipswich. In recent years, many homeowners have not been moving house but renovating their homes instead, and the firm was hired to carry out a single-storey front garage extension and kitchen conversion.

Asbestos broken up and left on the front lawn

Despite having knowledge and previous experience of working with asbestos, and even suspecting its presence in the garage ceiling, no efforts were made by the contractors to obtain an asbestos survey or take samples for analysis. Over three months of the conversion, asbestos insulating board (AIB), which formed a fire break between the garage and the rest of the house was removed, broken up and left on the front lawn before being bagged in open sacks and transported to the local tip by the homeowner, himself.

The risk of exposure and breathing in the airborne fibre dust by both workers, the homeowners and next-door neighbours was raised by HSE investigators following the prosecution of the firm, which was fined a total of £16,000 with cost after pleading guilty to breaching regulations 8(1) and 11(1)(a) of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012

Avoiding additional time and expense

Misunderstanding can still surround the discovery of asbestos and how to correctly manage, dispose and protect against exposure once it has been uncovered. In particular, property owners or builders may decide that to avoid additional time and expense, they will simply remove any asbestos without observing any obligatory protection or disposal procedures.

When asbestos fibres are disturbed and inhaled, they can remain permanently in the lung linings (pleura), eventually causing asbestosis diseases or the fatal and incurable mesothelioma cancer. Any attempt to remove quantities of asbestos without implementing procedures for sealing the contaminated area, and the issuing of protective breathing equipment and clothing under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006/ 12, is subject to prosecution.

According to recent figures published by the Health and Safety Executive , around 4,500 people – or more than 50 per cent of the 8,000 deaths caused by occupational cancer in England and Wales each year – are believed to be related to asbestos exposure.