It’s not just schools, hospitals, council estates and former factory premises. From Buckingham Palace and The Houses of Parliament to cinemas, public libraries, sports centres, swimming pools, police stations and even caravan sites. There are endless number of buildings and places reported where asbestos is found to be present. Each time, public asbestos awareness may be aroused by a concerned local community.

The peak period of asbestos use as a low cost source of insulation in almost every type of property began early in the 1950s, when around 130,000 tons of all asbestos types was imported into the UK. Ten years later the figure had risen to around 160,000 tons, peaking at 183,000 tons in the early 1970s. Despite a rapid decline from the 1970s onwards, and a first ban in the mid 1980s, around 10,000 tonnes of white asbestos was still being annually imported during the 1990s until a final ban in 1999. Rarely a week passes without the latest reminder of asbestos – still alive and potentially dangerous – hidden within the general building fabric of the UK.

In many cases, reports of asbestos will reach the headlines following a sudden discovery by workers on-site or by a building survey that uncovers the materials apparently not detected by earlier surveys. As a result, a demolition or refurbishment project becomes delayed as local authorities and contractors investigate the extent of the asbestos found and the carrying out of a safe and controlled removal. A ‘spokesman’ will also issue a statement declaring that the health risk to workers and public is “low” or virtually non-existent. Nevertheless, any asbestos found in a fragile, friable condition is particularly prone to release fibres.

It is well documented that a clear link between asbestos exposure and the development of asbestosis disease and the fatal mesothelioma cancer had been established as far back as the as the 1930s when the first asbestos regulations were introduced. Since that time, regulations concerning the surveying, handling and removal of asbestos have continually been updated and refined to help ensure the minimisation, and prevention of risk.

Only a limited number of areas or small amounts surveyed or identified

From 2004, every non-domestic building is required by law to undergo a regular Management Survey for asbestos. If any part of a non-domestic property is be refurbished or demolished, then a Refurbishment / Demolition survey is compulsory. Following the survey, it is necessary for all of the asbestos discovered to be removed before refurbishment or demolitions start, regardless of any perceived assessment of relative risk.

However, there often appears instances where an asbestos survey has not been carried out at the start of a project, or the findings not communicated to other contractors on-site. Where there was a first attempt at a survey, it may have been inadequate, and only a limited number of areas or small amounts surveyed or identified. On some occasions, a subsequent survey made at the last minute will reveal unexpected, “significant” amounts of asbestos, which will require removal by Health and Safety Executive (HSE) licensed asbestos contractors.

In 2014, a former Marks and Spencer store was discovered to contain large quantities of AIB (asbestos insulating board) during a premises refurbishment. A pre-works asbestos survey had not been carried out, and HSE was notified by a “non-licensed” asbestos removals firm when first asked to provide a quotation, who knew that the present work required to be carried by a “licensed” asbestos removal contractor. In 2016, a second discovery of asbestos during the first phase of works to replace the old Warner Stand at Lord’s Cricket Ground led to a four week delay in installing the seating. The materials may have laid hidden undetected since the Warner stand was completed in 1958.

No building up to 2000 should be considered safe from asbestos

The HSE estimate that there could be around half a million properties around the UK, which are likely to contain four million tons of hidden asbestos materials. Despite of continued construction industry warnings that no building up to 2000 should be considered safe from asbestos, it appears that a full Management asbestos surveys are not always a priority at the start of a non-domestic building refurbishment or demolition project. HSE have said that more than 1.8 million people – mostly building trade/ demolition workers – are annually exposed each year to asbestos.

On 6th April 2015, The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM 2015) came into force with a greater emphasis placed upon the primary duty of any building or demolition contractor to manage and monitor the work under their control in a way that ensures the health and safety of anyone it might affect (including members of the public). This includes engaging the services of authorised, licensed asbestos removal contractors, who should be provided with sufficient information, time and resources to prepare a suitable work plan, assess the premises properly and discuss key site information.

Licensed asbestos work also requires verification that a work area has been thoroughly cleaned of asbestos and that airborne fibres are as low as reasonably practicable, prior to handover for reoccupation or demolition. Despite a historical “low risk” assessment, white asbestos is considered a Class 1 cancer-causing agent and is, therefore always to be considered as potentially dangerous, wherever and whenever it is uncovered and identified.