The recent death of a 91 year old man and his wife from mesothelioma – even though neither had ever been exposed to asbestos at their places of work but instead contracted the fatal malignant cancer in their own home – highlights the lack of asbestos awareness to the hidden dangers of the deadly material likely to be present in any building constructed up until the end of the twentieth century.
Until the ban on the use of the most deadly brown and blue asbestos forms in the mid 1980s and the white asbestos type over 15 years later, asbestos was routinely used in cement products, applied and sprayed surface texture coatings, floor and ceiling tiles, boiler and pipe lagging, etc.
In the years immediately after the end of World War 2, an inexpensive rebuilding programme was ordered, in which over 150,000 prefabricated houses were quickly constructed. Many of the properties contained asbestos-containing materials widely used in UK building and manufacturing as an economical insulator and fire retardant, including asbestos roof shingles.
First introduced at the end of the nineteenth century, asbestos roof shingles were much lighter and more cost effective to produce than shingles made from slate or clay, which were widely used before and after the turn of the twentieth century.
Made from a base mixture of asbestos fibres and hydraulic or Portland cement, the end product was a lighter-weight but more rigid, durable, and fireproof roof shingle, resilient to warping, degrading and insect damage. Although they were intended to be a temporary housing measure lasting for around ten years, a number of the prefab houses are still in existence and unfortunately, many in poor condition.
Asbestos is all too often found in a worn, fragile and disintegrating condition, releasing its dust fibres into the atmosphere, especially if disturbed in any way. Inhaled fibres become permanently embedded in the linings of the lungs over a long period of up to 50 years, until the first signs of asbestosis symptoms eventually indicate the presence of asbestosis disease or the incurable mesothelioma cancer.
Although the number of prefabricated houses constructed of asbestos declined in the years after regulations were introduced from the 1980s onwards, there are of course many older properties throughout the UK where asbestos is still likely to be found.
Almost every week, building firms who discover asbestos during property renovations or demolition, especially housing estates, are reported in the news. Every year, around 2,000 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed in the UK and the number of asbestosis claim cases has more than doubled in just three years to over 1,164 in 2010.