Many housing tenants only become aware that they have been living in properties containing hidden asbestos materials when repairs are carried out and builders unexpectedly discover the dull, grey-white insulation boards, ceiling tiles or textured surface coatings.

Welsh Assembly minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, Lesley Griffiths, has recently written to local authorities to “emphasise the need for action to minimise the risk for both tenants and for those who work in the repair and maintenance of social housing.”

It is regularly reported that the essential information obtained from a pre-works asbestos survey is not always provided by private or local authority landlords to building / maintenance contractors. In her letter, Griffiths reminded councils and social landlords that “it is important for information from surveys and the asbestos register to be passed to the contractor in a timely and accurate manner.”

Unsuspecting builders disturb the hidden materials

Lack of asbestos awareness to its presence and exact location can often mean that unsuspecting builders disturb the hidden materials and release potentially harmful fibre dust into the immediate and surrounding area. A 2014 survey of British builders and related trades found that nearly one in five were unaware that asbestos could be hidden behind many common building fixtures, and within plumbing and heating systems.

Builders, joiners, plumbers and electricians have a significantly high risk of developing asbestosis diseases or the fatal incurable mesothelioma cancer, which  has been repeatedly highlighted in recent years. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimate that an average of 20 tradesmen lose their lives every week to asbestos-related illnesses, and of a total of 90,000 cases of mesothelioma projected to be diagnosed in Britain between 1970 and 2050, around 15,000 will include those employed in the building industry.

Living for many years in a council property containing hidden asbestos

The potential health risk for housing tenants also cannot be underestimated. Especially for those who may have been living for many years in a council property containing hidden asbestos. Local authorities, social housing organisations and other property owners and landlords may themselves be unaware of the problem or simply failed to take responsibility and action to either remove or properly manage the materials.

In 2010, a British Lung Foundation (BLF) survey of 2,000 homes found that more than four in ten of all property owners were unaware that asbestos containing materials (ACMs) were once widely used as a building material, and nearly two thirds did not feel confident they could identify the substance.

Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (CAR 2012), the legal responsibilities imposed upon employers to prevent exposure to asbestos or minimise risk to the lowest level as possible applies equally to landlords and property owners.

Landlord only has a legal responsibility to communal areas

However, tenants many not be aware that the law refers to “non-domestic” properties, which means that the landlord only has a legal responsibility to prevent the risk of exposure to asbestos where it may be present in the non-occupied “common parts” of a dwelling, such as the entrance halls, stairways, boiler rooms, shared garages and roofs, and communal gardens.

A landlord would be required under Regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 to carry out an asbestos survey to confirm if and where the materials are present in communal areas of his premises. A proper record of the location and type of asbestos must be kept on an “asbestos register” and a plan put into place to manage the risks and monitor any changes in the condition of the materials. The information contained on the asbestos register should be passed to building or maintenance contractors when any repairs or renovations are to be carried out in the common areas of the property.

Asbestos present in 90 per cent of all public sector housing

While the law states that tenants must be protected from personal injury or disease caused by a defect in the state of the property, it is of real concern that the Regulations do not place a legal duty on landlords of a multi-occupancy building to prevent / manage exposure risk in the tenant occupier’s private flat, room or house. In a multi-occupancy building, the tenancy agreement will indicate that the Landlord is the “duty-holder” for the common parts of the building while the Tenant is responsible for their own living space.

Any property built or renovated up until 2000 could contain asbestos-containing materials – which could be as high as 30 per cent in premises built before the 1980s. More disturbingly, the Dept for Communities and Local Government have estimated that asbestos is present in 90 per cent of all public sector housing.

HSE have previously stated that there could be around four million properties – both public commercial and private residential, still containing hidden asbestos materials, and more than 1.8 million people are likely to be exposed every year in the UK.