Living under an asbestos ceiling in 2016 is not so far-fetched as you may think. Especially if you happen to live in a council property built or renovated at any time up until 2000. Asbestos was discovered by workmen in an Artex ceiling of a Lincoln council flat bathroom after the mother of a two year old daughter complained of peeling mould, eighteen months earlier.

The professional building industry have estimated that around thirty per cent of asbestos in a residential property can be found in the form of Artex or similar brands of textured ceiling coatings and wall cladding.

Artex is probably the most well-known of the names associated with a range of surface applications, which used thick plaster-like paints to create decorative effects. It is also name that can often be referred to when linking asbestos awareness to potential household risks of exposure in the world of DIY.

In another similar case, a mother with a son who had previously received treatment for cancer, also discovered that the flaking Artex ceilings in her north London council estate house contained asbestos fibres when the property was being rewired.

Low cost source of material strengthener

Many might assume that risk of asbestos exposure in one’s own home and the potential for developing mesothelioma cancer or an asbestosis condition is consigned to Britain’s past. Up until the 1970s an average of 150,000 tons of asbestos of all types was imported every year for widespread manufacturing use as a low cost source of material strengthener, insulation and fireproofing.

When the first asbestos ban was introduced in the UK in 1985, a survey of over 2.2 million council houses conducted by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities (AMA) estimated that there was between two and four million homes constructed of lightweight building materials containing hidden asbestos. Construction industry experts says there still could be half a million houses around the country built before the ban on white asbestos in 1999, which are likely to contain asbestos.

Painted over several times

Council housing and other residential properties can contain between 3-5 per cent of white “chrysotile” asbestos fibres added for strength and easy application hidden behind ceilings, walls or decorative boards. The extremely tough Artex surfaces were originally dull white in colour and can be difficult to identify because they have usually been painted over several times. A survey by the British Lung Foundation has found that around three quarters of women and 25-34 year-olds of both sexes were unable to confidently identify asbestos in the home.

Failure to recognise asbestos can have fatal consequences. In another recent study, around 16,000 patients in their late 60s and diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma were investigated. While the source of asbestos exposure was identified in 75 per cent – or just over 12,000 patients, the remaining 25 per cent were completely unaware that their mesothelioma was caused by ongoing exposure to asbestos.

Contrary to claims that much of the asbestos found in properties is a ‘low level’ risk, often the materials can be found to be in a highly friable, e.g. disintegrating state. Any material suspected to be asbestos, whether whole or intact, is liable to release invisible fibre dust particles, and remain airborne for weeks or even months at a time to be easily inhaled.

Difficult to determine by visual inspection alone

The risk of exposure from asbestos in the home may not always be caused by slowly disintegrating fibre dust but can occur suddenly due to an unexpected event, such as a water leak, fire, explosion or a natural disaster. In one recently reported case, water pipes burst in the loft of a Kent home, which caused a ceiling to collapse. It was not known at the time that the ceiling – covered with Artex – contained asbestos, which was blown around the house by an industrial air blower being used to dry out the property.

If you believe that you may have Artex wall coatings which may contain asbestos, it is essential to have the materials properly analysed. While asbestos fibres were last added to Artex in August 1984, and even non-asbestos versions of Artex were available as early as the mid-70s, it is notoriously difficult to determine by visual inspection alone if a wall or ceiling surface does contain asbestos, especially in properties more than 25 to 30 years old.