The current crop of asbestos containing materials (ACMs) discovered in school premises is a reminder that the deadly material still poses a significant health threat in 2012.

The work of the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), Mesothelioma UK, and many other mesothelioma patient support organisations round the UK, especially in the traditional asbestos industry blackspots of the north of England, continue to raise asbestos awareness to the terrible consequences of allowing complacency to creep into the debate surrounding risk of exposure.

According to a recent HSE estimate, more than 1.8 million people are annually exposed to asbestos with at least 2,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed every year.

Often in the manufacturing process the long thin asbestos fibres were formed of at least six minerals. While nearly all building materials and consumer goods containing these types of fibres were limited to white chrysotile asbestos after the most toxic asbestos types were banned in 1985, other more dangerous minerals may be also found to contaminate the material composition.

It was only as recently as 1983 that any building or renovation work involving asbestos coating – often found in ceilings decorated with Artex – or insulation products, required formal licensing. In 1998, AIB (asbestos insulation board) was brought within Asbestos (Licensing) Regulations until 12 months later, when a complete ban was imposed on the import and use of white asbestos.

The prevalence of asbestos fibres in a variety of building materials is not just restricted to public or commercial buildings. A 1985 survey of over 2.2 million council houses conducted by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities (AMA) estimated that there could be between two and four million homes constructed of lightweight building materials containing hidden asbestos.

If left undisturbed, white asbestos will not release any fibres unless found in a friable or highly fragile state of disintegration. Once asbestos fibre dust is released into the atmosphere and inhaled, they can remain undetected within the pleural linings. It may take between 15 – 50 years before asbestosis symptoms first appear from initial exposure.

Management surveys, which should always be undertaken on any premises ahead of a building, renovation or demolition project will conduct thorough air, soil and other necessary material analysis along with detailed visual inspections.

Property owners, landlords, duty holders, homeowners and tenants occupying premises constructed or renovated up to the 1990s, should make themselves aware of some of the most likely parts of their property where asbestos may be hidden.

There was often copious use of asbestos cement, including canopy ceilings, panels over a fire place, cement cowls, flue pipes, soffit boards, metal corrugated sheets, bitumen adhesive, floor tiles, stair nosing and rope gasket window seals.

Asbestos insulation board was often used in boiler rooms, ductwork, pipe insulation, board boxing above a window or radiator, walls, ceilings and cupboards. Spray coatings were also applied to walls, ceilings, structural beams, boilers, pipes and around fuse boxes.

According to some industry estimates, the percentage of asbestos still found in household premises are as follows:

30 per cent – ceiling coatings.
15 per cent – boiler flue pipes and ducts, floor tiles, cold water storage tanks, insulation materials, eaves, gutters and rainwater pipes.
10 per cent – cement panel ceilings and outbuildings.
5 per cent – fire protection materials, including underside of integral garage roofs and boiler cupboard enclosures.