If you live in a house, flat or bungalow built or renovated at any time up until 2000 there is a possibility that there are asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) present.

But are you in immediate danger and how worried should you be about the risks of exposure and you and your family’s health?

These are questions that anyone with the slightest asbestos awareness of the potential harm that can be caused by breathing in the fibre dust would ask. There is still a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding surrounding the issue of finding asbestos in the home, and it’s a natural reaction to want the materials to be removed as quickly as possible.

However, the decision to remove asbestos may not always be the final option in some circumstances.

“Permanently worried…”

Recently a Devon family living in a rented property was informed by their landlord – a property services company – that a survey test had found asbestos “in the walls and ceiling of every bedroom, the living room and kitchen”.

Despite the significant amounts detected as present, the family were told that the asbestos was “not dangerous” and would not be removed. A spokesman for the landlords admitted that “ACMs are present in many homes…” but also said that “in many cases such as this, are perfectly safe to live with”.

Understandably, the family say they are now permanently worried about their health even though the landlords say they have gone through the findings of asbestos report to put the minds of the family at rest and are happy to do so again.

So what is the truth about the potential health risks if you discover that there is asbestos or ACMs in your home?

Repeated inhaling of dust particles

Firstly, the likelihood that any exposure, no matter how brief, which may eventually develop into an asbestosis disease or even cause fatal mesothelioma cancer can never be entirely ruled out. All asbestos is considered a Class 1 cancer-causing agent and is, therefore, potentially dangerous. But the overwhelming evidence shows that most mesothelioma cases are caused by repeated inhaling of dust particles over a period of time at a workplace where men directly handled asbestos materials and the fibre dust was also regularly released into the surrounding air where they worked.

Airborne dust is also known to be a widespread problem for employees working in buildings, such as schools, hospitals and council offices, which were constructed using materials, such as asbestos insulation board, boiler and hot water pipework asbestos ‘lagging’. Over time, the condition of the materials can deteriorate and disintegrate, allowing asbestos fibres to fragment and dust particles are released into the air.

The professional construction industry emphasise that any property built or renovated up until the closing decades of the twentieth century is liable to contain up to 30 per cent of ACMs. This also means residential premises, including local authority housing and council estates where asbestos could be present by up to 10 per cent in cement panel ceilings and in outbuildings. At least 5 per cent could also be present in fire protection materials, including the underside of garage roofs and boiler cupboard enclosures.

Condition of the asbestos

The key issue is the condition of the asbestos when discovered. The official advice provided by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) states that “As long as the asbestos-containing material (ACM) is in good condition, and is not being or going to be disturbed or damaged, there is negligible risk. But if it is disturbed or damaged, it can become a danger to health, because people may breathe in any asbestos fibres released into the air”.

The containment and management of asbestos when in good condition remains a sensitive issue when applied to public premises, such as schools, as often procedures may not be properly followed and the prevention of risk is found to be unsatisfactory.

If a houseowner or rental tenant discovers asbestos anywhere in their home, they must immediately notify the authorities who should arrange for an authorised and suitably trained person to conduct a survey to identify ACMs and have the materials analysed.

Number of factors

A decision over whether to remove or manage the asbestos will be based on a number of factors. In some cases, damaged asbestos can be made safe by repair and either sealing or enclosing it to prevent further damage. However, asbestos should be removed if it cannot be easily repaired and protected or is likely to be disturbed during routine maintenance work or daily use of the building.

This work must be carried out by someone trained and competent to carry out the task. Most work on asbestos insulation, asbestos insulating board and lagging, including sealing and removal, should normally be carried out by a contractor licensed by HSE.

The HSE state that those most at risk from exposure are mostly employed in construction and demolition, and related trades, including: roofers, electricians, plumbers, gas fitters, plasterers, painters and decorators, heating and ventilation engineers, and anyone who works on the fabric of a building. The quantity of dust particles inhaled could high enough to pose a risk, as set out by The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2012 (CAR 2012) for continuous measured periods of exposure.

We are unable to give advice on individual properties and would recommend that you seek the advice and expertise of a surveyor.