As the Easter Bank Holiday approaches, warnings over the dangers posed by DIY enthusiasts accidentally drilling into asbestos insulation hidden behind walls or ceilings, start to appear from the building trade. In recent years, asbestos awareness campaigns by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) also remind householders that asbestos containing materials (ACMs) could lay hidden within the fabric of their homes – especially if the property was built or renovated before 2000.

The regular campaigns are not without good reason. A recent survey found that almost half of homeowners and DIY enthusiasts appear to either not know or were unconcerned about the potential health risks associated with asbestos. When asked, nearly 5 in 10 householders said they “would be happy to remove tiles, do plastering or wallpapering” and 4 in 10 admitted they “would have no hesitation in drilling into a wall”.

It’s often assumed that asbestos is consigned to Britain’s industrial past

When the issue of risk from asbestos is raised, it can often be assumed that the danger is more or less consigned to Britain’s industrial past. However, not a week passes without asbestos being found in a school, removed from a premises by builders without safety precautions or illegally fly-tipped by the roadside. The authorities are quick to downplay the risk and it can be easily concluded that some individuals have over-reacted.

The reality can be very different. While the majority of men and women who are diagnosed with mesothelioma were often regularly exposed to asbestos over a number of years at one or more workplaces, it is not that rare for a brief incidence of exposure to lead to the development of an asbestosis disease.

Medical research has found that some individuals inherit genes with a potentially greater risk of mesothelioma cancer developing. Of nearly 1,000 cases recorded between 1980 and 2012, a family link was identified in 3 – 4 per cent of all mesothelioma cases. Research has also found that family members who had developed mesothelioma were often younger when first exposed to asbestos. The cells in younger age groups are increasingly thought to possess higher vulnerability to cancer-causing substances.

What are the real risks of asbestos when carrying out DIY jobs around the house?

Between the 1950s until the late 1970s / early 80s around 170,000 tons of asbestos was imported each year into the UK. Even during the 1990s, around 10,000 tons of white asbestos was still being annually imported. As a readily available, low-cost source of anti-corrosive and fire proof insulation, asbestos would find its way into almost every type of public, private and commercial building.

Both private householders and council tenants are equally at risk yet completely unaware that for years they may have been living with asbestos hidden in the walls, ceilings or floors. It’s not until a dwelling is surveyed for renovation or demolition that asbestos is uncovered.

The HSE have suggested that around the UK there could still be around six million properties with asbestos present, and the British Lung Foundation estimate the figure could be as much as 14 million. That’s nearly 60 per cent of the 23.4 million household properties recorded in the last census in England and Wales, 2011.

The Dept for Communities and Local Government have reported that there were 1.67 million dwellings in England owned by local authorities, who previously estimated that asbestos was present in 90 per cent of all public sector housing. (Housing Statistical Release, March 2014).

The construction industry have previously indicated that any property built or renovated up until 2000 could contain up to 30 per cent of asbestos containing materials. In residential premises, asbestos could be present by up to 10 per cent in 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.

Before attempting any DIY / redecorating, homeowners or tenants need to know:

  • If their property was first built or any previous renovations carried out before 2000.
  • If they can they tell the difference between modern asbestos-free materials and an asbestos–containing material, which look almost identical. After thirty years or more, white asbestos fibre products are likely to look discoloured – dirty grey, stained, the worse for wear – and indistinguishable from other building materials in the same condition.

Repairs or decoration usually involve some type of drilling, scraping or sandpapering, which may disturb any asbestos material lying hidden just beneath several previous coatings of paint or plaster. A more challenging problem is if asbestos sheeting is found behind integral wall board constructions. The HSE generally advise that asbestos may not pose undue risk when it is left undisturbed and is properly contained and managed when found.

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.

If sufficiently larger quantities of asbestos materials are suspected 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.