Small building firms who continue to ignore the potential risk of directly handling asbestos without any protection for themselves or others on the premises can have very different priorities to an increasing number of householders or tenants.

The general public’s asbestos awareness of the possibility that the deadly insulation materials may still be hidden behind walls and ceilings at home appears to be more pronounced when they start home renovations. Among the regular questions that anxious homeowners ask concerns the risks from the briefest exposure to asbestos or if inhaling just one single asbestos fibre will give them mesothelioma cancer.

There can also be confusion over whether white ‘chrysotile’ asbestos is “low risk” as has previously been reported, and if and who they need to contact if a small quantity of asbestos is uncovered.

Period of exposure

The majority of mesothlioma victims or others who have been diagnosed with asbestosis diseases will most likely to have been regularly exposed to asbestos over a period of time at their workplace. In most cases, industrial workers and maintenance crews employed in shipbuilding, railway and vehicle assembly, building and construction, and manufacturers of products using asbestos insulation materials.

Other victims of long-term ‘environmental’ asbestos exposure include those men and women who also would breathe in airborne fibre dust particles over a regular period. However, many were unaware that they were working in buildings constructed with asbestos containing materials, such as schools, hospitals, department stores, factory units, restaurants and offices.

Brief intensive exposure

The peak period of Britain’s industrial use of asbestos is considered to be between the 1950s and the late 1970s/early 1980s. The most toxic brown and blue asbestos types were banned from use in the UK in 1985, at the same time as the phrase “one fibre can kill” was also first used when referring to a brief but intensive exposure primarily encountered by tradesmen, building/demolition workers, firemen and other emergency services.

According to The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations, the control limits for asbestos exposure to white asbestos (chrysotile) are:

(a) 0.3 fibres per millilitre of air averaged over a continuous period of 4 hours.
(b) 0.9 fibres per millilitre of air averaged over a continuous period of 10 minutes.

Work is immediately halted

A homeowner or tenant who accidentally drills into a wall or wall cavity concealing asbestos wallboard or discovers asbestos tiles or sprayed textured asbestos under layers of paint is unlikely to breathe in sufficiently high enough quantities of airborne fibre particles – if the work is immediately halted and not continued. Medical research has shown that many millions of fibres are usually necessary to be inhaled, which could lead to the formation of cancerous cells.

Despite the first ban, use of white chrysotile asbestos was allowed to be continued because it was considered “low risk” at the time. The decision was made on the basis that the different fibre type and length, and the ability of the body’s immune system to more easily expel the fibres over a shorter period of time.

However, since that time, white chrysotile asbestos has been confirmed as a Class 1 carcinogenic substance at the Government Office for Science. The department said that it may not be possible “to determine a threshold level”, below which, exposure would be considered not a risk to health.

Mesothelioma rates have increased

The attitude shift which now no longer want to tolerate the presence of any asbestos even if it has been secured by encapsulation and strictly managed is not surprising in public buildings, such as schools and hospitals. Mesothelioma rates for teachers, for example, have increased in just the last ten years, according to data from the Health and Safety Executive.

Medical research shows quite clearly that the presence of asbestos fibres of all types can cause severe tissue inflammation, leading to scarring of the lung linings (pleural plaques), thickening of the lungs themselves (pleural thickening) and a build up of liquid (pleural effusion). Eventually, tissue cells can become cancerous, forming the tumours of mesothelioma cancer, which can spread to adjacent tissues and organs.

Risk assessment

Imports of white asbestos were finally halted in November 1999 and the construction industry advises that any premises first built or refurbished at any time up until then may contain white asbestos. For at least ten years after the ban, asbestos materials in circulation could still be used as strengthening and insulation, such as AIB (asbestos insulating board), wall panels, soffits, partitioning, ceiling tiles, boiler housing, cement roofing sheets and tiles.

If asbestos is uncovered during home renovations, it is important to always notify either the local authorities and/or a licensed asbestos removal firm who must undertake a survey, risk assessment, sample analysis and arrange for safe, waste removal, as set out by the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012.