It was starkly visible amongst the widespread damage caused by the exceptional force of the hurricanes that recently rampaged across the Caribbean and the Florida coast of America. Amongst the trail of devastation was the countless numbers of torn-off roofs piled up and strewn across the streets. We don’t usually take notice of a roof until an extreme weather event occurs or we are suddenly confronted with flytipped waste blocking a road or footpath. The reason being that almost always, they contain large amounts of discarded roofing material, often corrugated asbestos sheeting.

Illegal flytipping, nationwide, has increased by nearly a fifth, year on year, according to The Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA). While a third of all incidents consisted of a small van load of materials or less, nearly 6 per cent consisted of construction and demolition waste, including asbestos. A recent Freedom of Information request reveals that there has also been a rise in illegal dumping of asbestos of around 14 per cent in the last 3 years to more than 3,220 incidents in just 2017 alone.

Yet another asbestos awareness reminder of the extent to which the low cost fibre insulation became completely embedded within the fabric of UK building and construction during the middle decades of the 20th century. At one huge illegal dumping ground near Heathrow, five different examples of asbestos were identified – corrugated roof sheeting, insulating board, cement sheets, an asbestos fireplace and fire surround.

Half of all properties in the UK contain an asbestos roof

It is not uncommon to find a garage roof, an extension or outbuilding, which is covered with white asbestos cement sheeting in residential properties as well as in commercial or industrial units. The Land Registry have previously stated that more than half (55 per cent) of all industrial / commercial properties in the UK possess a white “chrysotile” asbestos cement roof, containing fibre content of around 10 to 15 per cent. Around three quarters still cover the buildings where they were built, which pose an ever-present health threat. The professional construction industry repeatedly warn that at least half a million buildings still contain hidden quantities of asbestos.

From the 1950s until the late 1970s and early 80s around 170,000 tonnes of asbestos was imported each year into the UK. Even during the 1990s, an average of 10,000 tonnes of white asbestos was still being annually imported. Asbestos, as a readily available, low-cost source of anti-corrosive and fire proof insulation found its way into almost every type of public, private and commercial building, most typically on an outbuilding or garage roof.

The risks of contact cannot be underestimated. In the production of cement based roofing between 1950 and 1969, the highly toxic blue “crocidolite” asbestos fibres were used, and from 1945 to at least 1976, the equally dangerous brown “amosite” fibres. White “chrysotile” fibres were also used – especially after the ban on blue and brown asbestos in mid 1988.

Struggle to stem the rising tide of illegally dumped waste

Imports of white asbestos were only discontinued at the end of 1999. As a result, the professional construction industry point out that any property built or renovated up until 2000 is liable to contain up to 30 per cent of asbestos containing materials (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.

Local authorities continually struggle to stem the rising tide of illegally dumped waste. In July 2014, the maximum fine for flytipping was increased to £95,000 for individuals, £3 million for companies and a possible jail sentence of three years. In May 2016, the government also granted local authorities the power to also issue penalty notices of between £150 and £400 to anyone caught in the act of fly-tipping. Unfortunately, the penalties appear to not deter builders or waste disposal firms from trying to cut the costs involved with paying official asbestos waste station fees. In some cases, homeowners can be tricked by rogue firms who say they will correctly dispose of asbestos waste for a special price.

Serious risk of exposure to any member of the public

It is often regularly reported that asbestos materials are simply ripped out of a property, broken up by hand and removed by a vehicle to be illegally dumped just a few miles from the original site. Even if the materials are found to be in good condition, the handling causes fibre particles to become airborne with potential risks to workers who are often not wearing the required masks and protection. It also poses a serious risk of “environmental” exposure to any member of the public who comes across newly dumped pile of waste at the roadside, or during a country walk.

Most illegally dumped asbestos sheeting is often found highly discoloured from moisture, weathering and / or damaged, and will easily release their fibre dust particles into the surrounding atmosphere when disturbed.

Waste materials, such as asbestos lagging, insulation board and roofing must always be removed by a licensed asbestos contractor and sent directly to an official landfill. Alternatively, small amounts of licensed asbestos materials may be taken to a Waste Transfer Station (WTS) where they are placed in a lockable skip before onward transportation to a landfill. Non-licensable materials, such as asbestos cements may also go direct to landfill but smaller loads do commonly end up at a WTS.