An increasing number of health campaigns, safety information, online articles and social media messages are all aimed at raising and maintaining asbestos awareness to the continuing risks of exposure from airborne fibre dust. Yet it sometimes seems that it’s only members of the public who are actually listening.

The regular appearance in court hearings suggest that small building firms, if not choosing to ignore the law, are simply not listening to the messages. At the same time, our specialist asbestosis lawyers at WESolicitors frequently receive enquiries from anxious householders or council tenants because they suspect they may have discovered asbestos containing materials inside their home.

While there is always a potential risk of developing asbestosis disease or fatal mesothelioma cancer from any exposure, no matter how brief, most cases are caused by repeated inhaling of dust particles over a period of time. Nevertheless, there continues to be a regular number of cases where asbestos exposure occurred either at home, school, hospital, office or another premises where asbestos containing materials are still hidden.

Even though the annual import of more than 1,800 tons of white asbestos by the end of the 1970s and early 1980s was finally banned from being used in building construction in November 1999, it was suggested in 2003 that around six million tonnes of asbestos still remain hidden in properties throughout the UK. According to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), as many as a half of UK households could still contain asbestos laying undiscovered within the fabric of the building.

Always suspect that asbestos will be present

The professional building and related trades industry have regularly given out the clear message that if a property was built or renovated at any time up until 2000, you should always suspect that asbestos will be present in one form or another. Many house owners are likely to be aware that in an older domestic property, asbestos could be present in the form of textured and sprayed ceiling coatings and wall cladding.

But even up until the late 1970s and early 1980s, a high number of construction industry products contained asbestos. The most common and widely used was interior drywall – which contained a layer of gypsum and other materials, including asbestos – which could be easily and quickly nailed onto wall studs to give a smooth surface for skim plaster finishing.

It’s therefore, very possible to find asbestos-containing drywall in a property built or renovated within the last 30 years. Amongst the various asbestos containing building products that may pose an asbestos exposure risk are sheetrock, gypsum board, drywall, asbestos plaster, taping compound, drywall tape.

Most houseowners will likely undertake a few basic DIY jobs and interior decoration around the home, which require either sanding down or drilling into walls, ceilings or other surfaces. Any attempt at disturbing the surface of an interior wall could release tiny amounts of asbestos fibre dust particles into the atmosphere.

May exceed current safe exposure limits

Worryingly, new research has found that the sanding down of drywall surfaces could release sufficient quantities of asbestos fibres, which may exceed current safe exposure limits. Data collected on drywall dust exposures has revealed that “the higher the concentration of asbestos-containing dust, the greater the likelihood that mesothelioma or lung cancer may develop.”

While the data refers most specifically to the exposure risk  affecting drywall specialists and general builders who undertake drywall work, it was also found that those who undertake DIY are listed as the third most risk-prone group.

Another key finding highlights the very real possibility that where builders may may not have been exposed to asbestos levels considered high at the time the work was carried out, nevertheless, the quantity of dust particles inhaled might still be high enough to pose a mesothelioma risk, as measured by current safety standards.

The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2012 (CAR 2012) state that the control limits for asbestos exposure to white asbestos (chrysotile) are:

  • 0.3 fibres per millilitre of air averaged over a continuous period of 4 hours.
  • 0.9 fibres per millilitre of air averaged over a continuous period of 10 minutes.

Correct type of breathing mask

If the surface area to be sanded down is minimal, it is advised that the correct type of approved safety clothing and breathing mask must be worn –  not a standard issue paper mask.

It is recommended that any homeowner planning major renovations involving the sanding down of entire wall surfaces, and are unsure if asbestos is present should contact their local authorities for further asbestos advice.

The Health and Safety Executive have estimated that more than 1.8 million people still come into regular and frequent occupational contact with asbestos materials, the significant majority being those employed in the building industry and related skill trades, such as plumbers, joiners and electricians.