Can any building contractor really claim genuine lack of asbestos awareness when encountering unidentified or suspect material onsite? Are local authorities, responsible for public buildings such as schools, hospitals and libraries, not sensitive to the issue of hidden asbestos?

In the latest of the all too frequent news headlines which allege mishandling of asbestos building material, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) are investigating an incidence of a possible discovery of asbestos behind a radiator during ground floor modernisation work at a South West London library which remained open during the refurbishment.

It was reported that the material had been carried through the library’s public area by unlicensed workmen before being “dumped” in the back garden. It was also claimed that the library management had insisted the material was not dangerous.

White asbestos (chrysotile) was still being used by the building industry as a low cost heat insulator and fire retardant in materials such as AIB (Asbestos Insulating Board), textured surface coatings, soffits, tiles and cement in buildings constructed or renovated right up until the 1980s.

When white asbestos is uncovered decades later, it is often found to be in a worn and friable (fragile / disintegrating) condition. Any attempt to remove or work with is liable to release asbestos fibre dust into the surrounding air. Consequently, any material suspected to be asbestos needs to dealt with only by fully licensed and trained asbestos removal contractors.

All too easily inhaled, asbestos dust fibres became permanently lodged within the lining cavity of the lungs. It is only after a long latency period of between 15 – 40 or more years, the first signs of mesothelioma, an incurable malignant cancer, or asbestosis symptoms emerge, mostly at an advanced stage of the disease, which leaves patients between 4 to 18 months left to live.

Although the council responsible for the Library was accused of a “cover up” and not ensuring the safety of the public and their staff, a spokesman for residents’ services said, “ As soon as the asbestos was found in the library, an expert asbestos disposal company was called to the scene which disposed of it in a safe and appropriate manner. The library was immediately tested and no traces of harmful asbestos dust was found.

“No members of the public were in the vicinity and there is absolutely no health risk to anyone at the building at the time or anyone who may have visited since. The asbestos was safely removed to a secure site at the back of the library building and has now been disposed of off-site.”

More than 1.8 million people are exposed to asbestos each year, and at least 2,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed, according to the HSE.