Could the celebration of the Queen’s 90th birthday next year turn out to be another “annus horribilis” after Elizabeth II overtakes Queen Victoria as the UK’s longest reigning monarch on September 10th this year?

It’s been reported that the Queen may need to vacate Buckingham Palace while much needed renovation work is to be carried out, including the removal of significant quantities of asbestos.

Asbestos awareness to its continuing presence has led to previous removal attempts at Buckingham Palace. The royal household of 775 rooms has not been decorated since before Elizabeth became Queen in February 1952. An estimated £150 million could be spent on renovations, such as replacing electrical wiring and plumbing, and may also include wallpaper first put up during the early childhood of Elizabeth in the reign of her grandfather, George V.

In every type of building across Britain

Asbestos in the UK can be traced back to the 1860s and industrial use had grown considerably by the start of the 20th century. It was from around the 1930s onwards, and especially in the decades after the World War II, that asbestos as a cheap source of insulation was in widespread use throughout British industry. By the 1960s, annual imports of asbestos were around 170,000 tonnes.

During the peak years of use between the 1950s and the late 1970s, asbestos containing materials would find themselves being installed in every type of private, public and commercial building across Britain. It’s therefore not surprising that alongside council estates, schools, hospitals, department stores and factories that some of Britain’s most historic institutions would also contain asbestos hidden within their ageing facades.

15-20 years to remove asbestos

Buckingham Palace was originally a large townhouse built for the Duke of Buckingham in 1705 and later acquired as a royal residence by King George III in 1761. The house has been the London residence of Britain’s sovereigns since 1837 and the last major structural additions were made during the reign of Elizabeth’s father George VI from 1936 to 1952.

It was during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in June 2012 that news stories began to circulate over the £1 million, which had already been spent on stripping asbestos from electrical cabling ducts found under the flooring in the south wing of the palace. A year earlier, Palace officials warned that the replacement of existing heating and electrical pipes along with “with associated asbestos removal will now take 15-20 years to complete.”

It should not be forgotten that the most dangerous types of toxic brown and blue asbestos were commonly in use as insulation and fireproofing up until the UK ban was introduced in the mid 1980s. Their sharp, needle shaped fibres were known to permanently penetrate the soft lung linings eventually turning tissue cells cancerous and leading to fatal malignant mesothelioma.

Not the only royal home at risk

Buckingham Palace is not the only home of a member of the Royal family where there continues to be a risk of exposure to asbestos. Kensington Palace became a royal residence in 1689 when William and Mary acquired the original Nottingham House. Later occupied by Queen Anne and the first two Georgian kings, the Palace has been renovated numerous times over the last three hundred years.

When Queen Elizabeth II’s sister, Princes Margaret moved into Kensington Palace in 1960, more than half a million pounds was spent on the complete replacement of the plumbing, electrical re-wiring and asbestos removal. In November 2011, it was announced that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge would take occupancy but not before 18 months of renovations costing £4.5 million had taken place, including the removal of yet more “large quantities of asbestos”, according to the National Ledger.

Asbestos has not only been a hidden danger in the homes of English royalty but can be a threat to the political seats of power too.

Asbestos in the home of Parliament

Westminster Palace served as the home of Parliament from the thirteenth century. A major fire in October 1834 led to a complete reconstruction and Westminster Palace today mostly dates from that period. Further extensive rebuilding took place following WW2 bombing in May 1941. The use of asbestos as inexpensive insulation was widespread throughout Britain in the decades of post-war reconstruction.

In 2007, the Management Boards of both the House of Commons and the Lords appointed a survey into the quantities of asbestos, which may be contained within the fabric of the entire building. In the subsequent report, it was noted that asbestos was present throughout, including in all of the ninety-eight vertical risers that carry the water pipes, electrical cables and other parts of the essential infrastructure.

The specialist consultants concluded that as a result of their inspections of the risers and ducts they “ became aware of significant dangers and risks to the health and safety of persons not only gaining access and working in risers and ducts but generally to all persons within the Palace of Westminster.”