Concern over the social housing crisis and the lack of affordable homes being built escalated during 2015. At the start of 2016, it’s important to be reminded that a new housing programme would also help with the issue of asbestos-containing materials, which can still be found in aging council homes built or renovated at any time up until 2000.
Building new dwellings that will definitely not contain asbestos insulation would save the lives of builders, plumbers, electricians, and tenants, who continue to be at potential risk of exposure. Despite better asbestos awareness of the hidden health hazards, an estimated 1.8 million people are exposed to asbestos-containing materials every year, most of whom, are involved in the building trade.
In a recent case, a former council property surveyor and general foreman, lost his life to asbestos-related mesothelioma one year after diagnosis, aged 79. His widow recalls her husband talking about the quantities of asbestos in the many council properties he worked in from 1972 until 1992. There is usually a period of between 15 to 50 years from initial exposure to the first appearance of asbestosis symptoms.
Asbestos imports were at peak levels during the 1960s and 70s
Large-scale council house building began in the 1920’s but accelerated in the post-WW2 reconstruction from the 1950s onwards with government targets set at building 300,000 new homes every year. During the 1960s and 70s, the proportion of council-owned housing increased to a half of all properties built. At the same time, however, asbestos imports were at peak levels. Around 170,000 tons of asbestos were imported every year, of which, around 13 per cent, or 23,000 tons was the highly toxic brown ‘amosite’ asbestos. Some 300 insulation and fireproofing products were manufactured to supply UK industry, including building and construction.
When the first UK ban on the use of asbestos (brown amosite and blue crocidolite) was introduced in 1985, a survey conducted in the same year by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities (AMA) estimated that asbestos containing materials (ACMs) were present in four million council homes, eighty per cent of 10,000 schools and over three quarters of social services buildings surveyed. Around 25,000 metric tons of white asbestos continued to be imported during the late 1980s.
After 1979, local authorities were discouraged from building council housing. The Right to Buy scheme, introduced by the Housing Act 1980 led to one third of council tenants buying their properties from the local authority. As a result, many of the houses and flats built since the 1950s using asbestos-containing materials, could now be found in both social housing and the new, privately owned properties.
Ex-council houses purchased on the Right to Buy scheme
Many council owned houses often still contain hidden asbestos in the walls, floors, ceilings and roofing. But very similar circumstances may also be found in ex-council houses purchased on the Right to Buy scheme despite having changed private ownership many times since their original purchase from the local authorities and have been renovated in the intervening years. The potential risk means it is vital that a full asbestos survey is always carried out on any property built before white asbestos was banned in November 1999.
After the first ban, white asbestos fibres continued to be used as insulation in a wide range of building materials. The most widespread use was in “artex” or similar textured ceiling and wall coatings, insulating wall board (AIB), sprayed loft insulation, boiler pipe lagging and linings, pre-formed corrugated cement roof sheeting and shingle tiles.
Asbestos was present in 90 per cent of all public sector housing
The scale of the risk cannot be emphasised enough. As of April 2014, there are 1.67 million dwellings in England owned by local authorities, according to the Dept for Communities and Local Government (Housing Statistical Release, March 2014), who previously estimated that asbestos was present in 90 per cent of all public sector housing.
Construction industry experts estimate that any property built or renovated up until the late 1980s, at least, is liable to contain up to 30 per cent of asbestos-containing materials. In residential premises, asbestos could be present by up to 10 per cent in cement panel ceilings, and in around 5 per cent of outbuildings, such as the underside of garage roofs.
Sadly, it is still frequently reported that asbestos sheeting is unexpectedly discovered during renovations or demolition of council estates built as recently as thirty years ago. How long will it be before we see new social housing, guaranteed free of asbestos?