The discovery of asbestos hidden in council housing constructed at any time up until the late 1970s and early 80s – along with finding asbestos in schools – is not a rare occurrence. In the latest incident, in the first week of July, it was reported that a tower block in Motherwell, North Lanarkshire was evacuated after workers disturbed amounts of “settled” asbestos dust during mains cabling replacement.

On this occasion the discovery of asbestos led to an organised operation involving the removal to safety of 100 residents within a “few hours.” Following the prompt sealing of the affected area, a “deep clean” and fibre analysis tests being carried out, residents were allowed to return three days.

The 17- storey Anderson Tower block, comprising 67 flats, was built in Motherwell, near Glasgow in 1969. At the peak of asbestos production during the mid 1960s, around 170,000 tons of asbestos were imported into the UK each year. The growing asbestos awareness to the fatal health risks did not prevent 150,000 tons of the deadly fibres being imported during the 1970s before a ban was introduced on the most toxic brown and blue types by the mid 1980s.

Hidden asbestos materials

For at least another ten years, white asbestos fibres continued to be used as insulation in a wide range of building materials. The most widespread use was in “artex” or similar textured ceiling and wall coatings, insulating wall board (AIB), sprayed loft insulation, boiler pipe lagging and linings, pre-formed corrugated cement roof sheeting and shingle tiles.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimate that there are still some four million properties around the UK, which are likely to contain hidden asbestos materials, often found in a friable (fragile and disintegrating) condition. Any attempt to remove can result in fibres becoming airborne and inhaled by anyone in close proximity, from home owner or tenant, company employee to public visitors, as well as building and demolition workers.

HSE frequently report incidents where asbestos containing materials (ACMs) have been uncovered in commercial or local authority premises by workmen where either an asbestos survey has neglected to be carried out or the key information has failed to be communicated to all those involved.

Potential for exposure a very real threat today

Any property built or renovated up until the closing decades of the twentieth century is liable to contain up to 30 per cent of ACMs. In residential premises, asbestos could be present by up to 10 per cent of cement panel ceilings and in outbuildings, and at least 5 per cent in fire protection materials, including the underside of garage roofs and boiler cupboard enclosures.

The swift and coordinated actions of North Lanarkshire council together with the on-site contractors indicates the seriousness to which the presence of any quantity of asbestos is now taken. Far from being consigned to Britain’s industrial past, the potential for exposure is a very real threat today.

HSE estimate that more than 1.8 million people – mostly involved in the building trades – continue to be annually exposed to asbestos with at least 2,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed every year.