The ever-present dangers of asbestos are highlighted whenever a premises is discovered containing the potentially hazardous insulation materials during renovations, demolition or if a fire breaks out.

The construction industry caution that there could be around half a million properties still containing asbestos–containing materials. Despite the ban on the most toxic asbestos types in the mid 1980s, white asbestos fibres (chrysotile) remained in use as an insulating and fire retardant building material for at least another ten years until imports were banned in 1999.

Constant risk of daily exposure

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) repeatedly warn that 1.8 million people are at constant risk of daily exposure. While builders, tradesmen and demolition workers tend be top of the list of occupations most at risk, it is the emergency services – firefighters in particular – who are also most often in the front line of exposure to asbestos.

Asbestos awareness can be instantly and dramatically raised among the general public whenever a building is reported to be on fire. Where there may often be a reluctance or denial that the asbestos known to be present in a premises represents any significant health risk, if the building suddenly catches fire, more than one type of alarm bell may suddenly be heard.

Increasingly, concern is expressed that there may be asbestos dust present in the clouds of thick smoke belching out of a burning building, which can spread rapidly throughout a local neighbourhood.

Residents to keep windows and doors closed

In a fire which broke out a car spares depot in Bradford at the end of July, there was a fear that parts of a roof blown off by the fire and heat were “thought to contain asbestos.” The Land Registry have previously stated that 55 per cent of all industrial / commercial properties in the UK contain a white chrysotile asbestos cement roof. Cement-based products containing asbestos, such as roofing, shingles or cladding tiles are still often considered ‘low risk’ because the fibre content is around 10 to 15 per cent.

As dense smoke poured into the surrounding atmosphere, police wearing protective face masks cordoned off the area and warned local residents to keep windows and doors closed, and stay indoors overnight. It took eight fire crews several hours to eventually bring the blaze under control.

Airborne particles may be easily breathed in

Fire fighters have always been at potential risk of exposure to asbestos materials when a building has been damaged by fire, flood, explosion or a ground disturbance. While asbestos itself will not burn in a fire, the smoke may contain tiny asbestos fibre particles. Up until asbestos was banned, fireman were sometimes required to crawl through confined spaces, such the ducts under hospital boiler houses, alongside asbestos-lagged pipes and through the asbestos dust and debris on floors.

Today, even the debris left after a fire has been extinguished may still contain asbestos fibres and the water may further expose and break fibres down. There are considerable health risks to firefighters who may prematurely remove their heavy respirators without realising that airborne particles may be easily breathed in. There is a similar risk when the fibre dust is later physically shaken off a uniform.

Medical examinations

In April 2012, the HSE updated the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 to include notification of work and record keeping for specific types of non-licensed asbestos work. In addition, by April 2015, all workers/self employed carrying out notifiable, non-licensed work with asbestos must be under health surveillance by a doctor.

The continuing risk of exposure to asbestos led a number of fire and rescue services to ask the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to clarify their position on the legal requirements for periodic medical examinations for crew members who disturb asbestos and may be at at risk of developing mesothelioma or other asbestosis diseases.