It can be often assumed that the presence of asbestos in a residential property today is rare. Discovery of asbestos containing materials tends to only be reported when an old housing estate block is being renovated or demolished. It’s not unusual for local authority tenants to find out that for decades they were living with asbestos hidden behind cupboards, walls, tiles, window sills, ceiling, soffits or roofing.

It may only come to light if there is damage caused to the ceilings or walls, or during redecoration. In one recent case, a tenant in their late 60s suspects that exposure to asbestos at home in Newcastle from the late 1990s onwards was responsible for causing their terminal mesothelioma.

To get a better understanding and asbestos awareness of how widespread the potential risk of the fibre insulation could be across the UK’s housing stock today, here is a recent government figure. There are 23.8 million domestic properties in England, of which, around 1 in 6 (3.9 million) were built before 1900, according to the Valuation Office Agency, June 2016. Asbestos industries had already began in England and Scotland during the early 1870s and the first documented “asbestosis” death recorded at London’s Charing Cross Hospital in 1906.

Asbestos fibres were used in producing hundreds of building materials

Large-scale building of council housing across the UK began in the 1920s. From 1945 onwards, when 100,000 tons of asbestos on average was imported annually, around 300,000 new properties were built every year. As low cost insulation and fireproofing, asbestos fibres were used in producing hundreds of building materials installed in walls, ceilings, floors, and to line hot water and heating systems in millions of private and council residential properties.

During the 1960’s, imports of asbestos had increased to around 160,000 tons per year as the proportion of council owned housing rose to 50 per cent. Between 1965 and 1970, at the height of UK asbestos imports of 170,000 tons annually, 1.3 million new homes were built.

Since the Housing Act 1980, when the Right to Buy scheme was introduced, ex-council houses bought on the scheme may have changed ownership many times on the private market and many have been renovated in the intervening years. Just after the first ban on the most toxic blue and brown asbestos types in 1985, a survey of over 2.2 million council houses conducted by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities (AMA) estimated that there could be between two and four million homes constructed of lightweight building materials containing hidden asbestos.

Bungalow where it is believed that exposure to asbestos occurred

The mesothelioma victim rented a bungalow in 1998 from North Tyneside Council. Upon taking occupancy, it was discovered that parts of the property were in need of repair, especially the bathroom, which the tenant recalls as being so badly damaged that it would have to be completely removed.

It is thought that exposure to hidden asbestos occurred while work was carried out to remove the bath. It was nearly 20 years later that the victim first experienced being out of breath, one of the early signs of an asbestos-related condition, before a diagnosis of mesothelioma was finally confirmed. It can take between 15 and 50 years for asbestosis symptoms to appear from an initial exposure.

The professional construction industry and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) repeatedly caution that any premises built or refurbished up until 2000 – the year after white asbestos was finally banned – should always be suspected of containing up to 30 per cent of asbestos containing materials. This also includes 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.

Quantities of asbestos appear to be often underestimated

However, local authorities can be reluctant to admit there is a problem with their housing stock. Three years ago, a Freedom of Information request revealed that more than three in five of 12,000 council properties surveyed in the Stoke On Trent area were found to contain asbestos. Recently, Worcester council admitted that nearly a half of their 1,500 properties contain asbestos materials.

The quantities of asbestos still concealed in millions of properties around Britain appears to be often under-estimated. The demolition of eight bungalows near Wrexham, north Wales found that more than half of the project overspend involved the removal of additional amounts of asbestos, which were later discovered.

The HSE estimate more than 1.8 million people are likely to be exposed to asbestos every year in the UK and, in 2014, the watchdog suggested that 5,000 people will die annually from asbestos exposure.  A further 45,000 mesothelioma deaths are also expected by 2050.