Both in the press and in the law courts, asbestos awareness of the risk from the deadly substance, which still lies hidden just under the surface of some half a million properties around the UK, is a regular wake-up call to unsuspecting homeowners and tenants.
The use of white asbestos as a decorative surface coating, as well as the more familiar insulation wallboard, pipe lagging and roofing tiles in domestic dwellings, is still very much in the news.
One typical example was only reported on the 21st September, when a south Tyneside couple with a young family of three discovered that the walls of their property they had occupied for three years were covered in Artex containing asbestos fibres.
It can often be assumed that it’s only likely to be housing estates built between the 1950s and 70s, and earmarked for demolition that are frequently reported as containing hidden asbestos not properly surveyed or disposed of by building contractors.
In reality all types of homes were built right up to the 1980s and beyond with materials containing white asbestos fibres, such as Artex, until imports were banned in 1999 and a total ban implemented by EU directive in 2005.
The south Tyneside family only became aware of the potential hidden killer sharing their home, when they became suspicious of repeated advice not to “disturb” the wall covering even though they wanted to redecorate. A subsequent analysis confirmed the presence of asbestos, which apparently, was never mentioned when they first took occupancy of the house three years earlier.
White asbestos ( chrysotile) is considered ‘low risk’ if left undisturbed and properly contained and managed. However, this can really only apply if the material is in good condition and has not deteriorated over time – and is located where it will not be disturbed.
Any surface interruption that might accidentally (or deliberately) occur, which can be caused by attempts to decorate or remove, can release asbestos fibres into the surrounding air. Once inhaled, the fibres attach to the lung linings, often leading to asbestosis diseases or worse, the fatal incurable mesothelioma cancer. A long incubation period also means that asbestosis symptoms will only make themselves known after a period of between 15 to 50 years.
Despite assurances from certain quarters, the status of chrysotile (white) asbestos as a Class 1 carcinogenic substance was reaffirmed by the Head of the Government Office for Science in 2011. It has also been concluded that it may not be possible “to determine a threshold level below which exposure to ‘pure’ chrysotile could be deemed ‘safe’ for human health.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimate that in the UK, more than 1.8 million people are annually exposed to asbestos and at least 4,700 asbestos disease related deaths are recorded every year.