Reports of “significant” quantities of asbestos containing materials (ACMs) found in buildings earmarked for demolition (or refurbishment) continue to be regularly reported in the local press. The headlines should serve as a constant reminder of the ever-present dangers of breathing in the deadly fibre dust some thirty years after the first ban was introduced.

Recently, it was reported that an additional £1.3 million would be required for the demolition of four multi-storey tower blocks in Dumbarton, Scotland, because they were found to contain “unexpectedly high” levels of asbestos. According to the local authority the levels of asbestos were “far beyond the normal content expected in buildings of their age and type” and “not fit to provide tenants with the modern standards they deserve.”

As the extent of the asbestos became known, demolition costs have risen and questions have been raised as to why it took so long for the highly dangerous material to be discovered. It was stated that the presence of asbestos could not be fully known until a thorough survey was undertaken and it was also suggested that because the flats were built many decades earlier – when there was less knowledge of asbestos – there is unlikely to be any surviving records of building specifications.

Asbestos continued to be used

There is no doubt that asbestos awareness today is considerably more advanced and widespread than during the heyday of its use from the 1940s through to the late 1970s and early 80s when the most lethal forms (brown amosite and blue crocidolite) were banned. However, it is also known that white chrysotile asbestos continued to be used in many different forms of wallboard, insulation and surface coatings in building and renovations until the end of the 1990s.

Just after the first ban in 1985, a 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.

A recent survey conducted in Scotland claimed that 93 per cent of schools in Edinburgh built before 2000 contain asbestos in the walls, ceilings or floors and a Freedom of Information request also revealed that more than three in five of 12,000 council properties surveyed in the Stoke On Trent area were found to contain asbestos.

Thousands living in properties constructed with ACMs

The question still remains over the many thousands of occupants living in properties constructed with ACMs over the last forty to fifty years. It is also well-known that sustained periods of exposure can lead to the development of the fatal and incurable mesothelioma cancer and other asbestosis diseases yet the symptoms may only appear up to fifty years from initial exposure.

The likelihood of discovering ACMs in properties built or renovated at any time up until the late 1980s at least is commonly acknowledged. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimate there could be around four million properties – both public commercial and private residential, still containing hidden asbestos material to which more than 1.8 million people are likely to be exposed every year in the UK.