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  • Asbestos - What is it and should I be concerned?

    10th September 2018

    Asbestos – What is it and should I be concerned?

    Chances are you have heard of asbestos – it’s something that has had lots of publicity due to health implications, particularly in the work place. But, asbestos has also been commonly used in residential buildings. At this point you may be trying to find out more about it because asbestos has been highlighted in your homebuyer report or building survey. The questions we will answer are:

    1. What is asbestos?
    2. What is the problem with asbestos?
    3. What does asbestos look like?
    4. Where can asbestos be found in a house?
    5. Does asbestos stop me buying my house?
    6. How can I confirm if there is asbestos in my house?

     

    What is asbestos?

    Asbestos is a term for a group of minerals made of microscopic fibres. It is a natural mineral, not a man-made product. Asbestos is commonly mined from the ground in Canada, Cyprus, Australia and other places across the world. It is thought of as a man-made material because it was added into many man-made products, especially building materials but this was before its dangers were known. Asbestos was often used in insulation, flooring and roofing and sprayed on ceilings and walls. This is because asbestos gave materials greater strength, fire-resistance and insulation quality.

    In the early post-war years it was in such common use it is likely to exist somewhere, in one form or another, in any property built between 1945 – 1970, slightly less so in properties built 1970 – 82 and less so again from the 80’s onwards. It was only completely banned in November 1999. Buildings constructed before the year 2000 may still have asbestos in them. If the asbestos-containing materials inside these buildings remain intact, they pose very little risk. It’s only when these materials are damaged or disturbed that tiny asbestos fibres can be released into the air and breathed into your lungs.

     

    What is the problem with asbestos?

    Asbestos is linked to serious and terminal respiratory illnesses. Even a single exposure is harmful and regular exposure can ultimately lead to death. Left undisturbed, the fibres pose little risk. However, when disturbed (e.g. by carrying out work with asbestos products) the fibres can be inhaled and become deposited on the lungs. Illnesses such as mesothelioma and asbestosis can develop which can show up around 30 years from exposure. People involved in the manufacture of asbestos containing products would have been vulnerable to high level exposure, including those around them, for example family members who laundered their clothes.

    Because of the danger of being exposed to these microscopic asbestos fibres, surveyors look out for it when conducting a survey and advise on items within the property that they suspect contain asbestos. You can then have asbestos surveys or tests carried out on any suspected materials prior to doing any work so you can determine whether or not you are safe to do works yourself or need a specialist asbestos contractor to remove and dispose of the material.

     

    What does asbestos look like?

    We will take a look at asbestos in its raw form as you cannot see asbestos is in a finished product. The three most common types are chrysotile, amosite and crocidolite.

    • Chrysotile (white asbestos) is the most commonly used type of asbestos and is often contaminated with trace amounts of tremolite (another type of asbestos). Chrysotile fibres are usually fine in texture, possessing high flexibility and good heat resistant properties, making it ideal for use in cement, brake pads/linings and roofing materials.
    • Amosite (brown asbestos) is a particularly strong
      Brown Asbestos
      Source: Colorbox. Brown Asbestos

      and heat-resistant type of asbestos that was commonly used in cement sheet, plumbing insulation and electrical insulation. Though all types of asbestos are toxic, amosite asbestos exposure has a comparatively higher cancer risk. It is mostly mined in Africa.

    • Crocidolite (blue asbestos)has very thin fibres and, if inhaled, are easily lodged in the lungs. It’s thin fibres and brittle nature make crocidolite one of the most harmful forms of asbestos, as it easily breaks down and leads to asbestos exposure.

     

     

    It isn’t always obvious which products contain asbestos – you can’t confirm by sight, smell or colour. The only way to find out is to have suspected items tested which we will come on to later. Age and type of product provide a hint but not a confirmation.

     

     

    Where can asbestos be found in a house?

    Below is a diagram showing some of the common locations and products that contain asbestos – items that are likely to be highlighted by your surveyor in a pre-purchase survey.

     

    diagram of where asbestos is found inside and outside a residential property
    Source: 0800Asbestos

    As you can see, there are a surprising number of products that you wouldn’t suspect from your toilet to your floor ties. Finding out there may be asbestos items in your house is not cause for concern. If you leave it be then you don’t need to do anything – it will just mean the cost of any work will be slightly higher as you will need specialist contractors to remove and dispose of the asbestos before doing any further work.

     

    Asbestos Outside the Property

    Asbestos fibre was often added to cement and moulded into different products for a whole range of uses outside the house. It is usually greyish in colour and has a regular rippled or textured surface. The most commonly found products today are rainwater gutters and downpipes (key – O). Due to their age, many of these are now in poor condition, leaking and degrading – a hazard.

    Soffit boards (key – P) are another potential source and can be harder to spot as these are usually painted over. A give away sign is the textured surface. In more modern houses asbestos cement board was frequently used to hold in the bottom edge of the cement pointing to roof verges.

    Decorative panels, window infill panels (key – Q) and side walls of porches may also be asbestos cement board rather than materials such as plywood. With age the material can become brittle and the surface can degrade. This can allow asbestos fibres to escape each time you brush past the surface and become airborne and can remain airborne due to their lightweight, microscopic nature for up to 18 hours.

    Garage roofs were also commonly constructed using asbestos containing panels. In some instances you may find old roof panels at the end of the garden where they have been removed of incorrectly and not disposed of to save money.

     

    Asbestos Inside Property

    Asbestos materials inside the property are likely to be drier than those on the outside. This can make them more hazardous as it is easier for them to become and remain airborne. Asbestos can be found in loft / roof space insulation (key – C). If the insulation in your roof space is dusty and loose it is advisable to get out before you breath too much in – remember asbestos is dangerous when breathed in.

    Textured ceiling and wall coatings more commonly known as Artex used before the mid-1980s also can contain asbestos (key – D). Once a very stylish and desired finish, many homeowners now want to remove it to leave a smooth surface. It is important that you do not sand down textured coatings without getting them tested first – sanding disturbs the material and will fill the air with the fibres.

    Floor tiles (key – M) do not always contain asbestos but don’t forget that the adhesive holding them to the floor below can contain asbestos fibres.

     

    How Can I Tell If Asbestos is Present?

    As mentioned earlier, you cannot tell by sight, smell or colour. Asbestos is a fibrous material that comes in many colours, shapes and forms and so there are many products that look similar that both do and do not contain asbestos. The fibres are incredibly small: about 10 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

    The only way you can know for definite that asbestos is present is by having the material tested by a specialist laboratory. A surveyor will visit the property to take samples from the items in question and have them tested in a laboratory. The results of the test will confirm if asbestos is present.

    Fortunately, asbestos only releases harmful fibres if disturbed and doesn’t cause harm unless it’s inhaled. If you are carrying out any work, it is not worth taking the gamble and carrying out work. For the sake of getting a test carried out you can save yourself the health implications. Seek specialist advice first.

     

    Does asbestos stop me buying or selling my house?

    No. Asbestos is common in many houses and it is safe if undisturbed and in good condition.  As a seller you are required to disclose to potential buyers that asbestos is present if you are aware of it. It is up to the buyer to decide if they still wish to pursue a purchase based on how much asbestos is present and therefore how much it may cost to remove in the future. If the asbestos is found to be in poor condition and pose a health hazard then it can be more complicated. In this instance you may wish to have any asbestos in the house removed prior to placing your house on the market or, alternatively, putting your house on the market at a reduced rate that allows your buyer to carry out the work.

     

    How can I confirm if there is asbestos in my house?

    The only way to confirm if there is asbestos in any elements of your house is to have an asbestos survey and send samples off to a laboratory for testing. Once you have the results you can either get on with any work or call in specialist asbestos removal contractors.

    Get quotes for an asbestos survey now.