The recent discovery of a highly toxic form of asbestos last used in the property construction industry thirty years ago is a warning against complacency over asbestos awareness, and the enduring presence and potential health risk of the deadly insulating material.

Around 25 residents living in a block of flats in the Devon area may have been put at risk of exposure to the highly dangerous brown ‘amosite’ asbestos when local council contractors began renovation work. It seems that there was a failure to fully comply with the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 /12, which require an asbestos survey to be carried out before work begins, and residents were also not informed of the refurbishment.

The presence of asbestos only came to light when roofing soffits – vertical boards which bridge the gap between a side wall and the roofline or eaves – were being removed. Soffits are one of the most common parts of a property to be constructed of asbestos sheeting.

An authorised asbestos specialist was later contracted to carry out a thorough survey of the area to identify if asbestos-containing materials remain hidden on site and any materials found to be analysed for potential risk.

30 per cent asbestos in homes

It is estimated that any property built or renovated up until the late 1980s, at least, is liable to contain up to 30 per cent of asbestos-containing materials. In residential premises, asbestos could be present by up to 10 per cent of cement panel ceilings, and in around 5 per cent of outbuildings, such as the underside of garage roofs and boiler cupboard enclosures.

More worrying, the soffits were found to be constructed of ‘amosite’- a most dangerous asbestos type, originally banned in the UK in 1985. During the 1960s and 70s, asbestos imports were at peak levels. Around 170,000 tons of asbestos were imported every year, of which around 13 per cent, or 23,000 tons was the highly toxic brown ‘amosite’ asbestos. Some 300 insulation and fireproofing products were manufactured to supply UK industry, including building and construction.

Banned asbestos not consigned to history

It can be often mistakenly assumed that the banning of both brown amosite and blue crocidolite asbestos would mean that the exposure risk would be consigned to history. In addition, the so-called ‘low risk’ white crocidolite asbestos was only banned from import in 1999, when around 10,000 tons of asbestos was still being imported every year during the 1990s. The term ‘low risk’ tends to be commonly applied if white asbestos is found to be in a strictly undisturbed state, good condition (not deteriorated over time), and is to be properly contained and managed according to the Control of Asbestos Regulations (CAR) 2006/12

It is believed that there could be between half a million to six million properties around the UK still harbouring the deadly fibre materials within their walls, ceilings, roofs and floors. HSE estimate that more than 1.8 million people – mostly involved in the building trades – continue to be annually exposed to asbestos, and more than 2,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed every year.