Asbestos is one of those words that no homebuyer wants to hear. Subsidence is another one – but that’s a whole other story. Here at Crucial Environmental, we deal with asbestos-related enquiries on a daily basis, so we thought we would share our expert knowledge. So, what exactly is asbestos, where would you find it in a building and why is it a problem?
What is asbestos and where do you find it?
Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that was widely used as a building material until fairly recently. In fact, the term covers a group of six naturally occurring minerals – chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, anthophyllite, tremolite and actinolite – that have been mined for 4,000 years. But it was from the late 1800s onwards that their useful properties were recognised. Asbestos is an affordable material that is resistant to fire, heat, chemical and electrical damage, and it is an excellent insulator.
It is most commonly found in residential properties mixed with other materials such as cement sheeting, corrugated roofing and wall coatings, such as Artex. Asbestos was routinely used to insulate gas pipes, water cisterns, pipe lagging, behind fuse boxes and around boilers, and in floor and ceiling tiles.
The use of blue (crocidolite) and brown asbestos (amosite) was outlawed in the UK in 1985, while white asbestos (chrysotile) was not in fact fully banned in the UK construction industry until 1999. While you can be sure that UK homes built this century will therefore not contain asbestos, properties built pre-1999 need to be treated with caution. Artex, for instance, contains white asbestos. A popular floor and ceiling treatment in the 1950s and 1960s, it was routinely used up until the mid 1980s.
What are the health hazards associated with asbestos?
Unfortunately, asbestos has a lethal side effect for humans. The fibres are a known carcinogen when inhaled, which leads to serious long-term lung damage such as malignant mesothelioma and lung cancer, as well as COPD, plural thickening and effusion. Other asbestos-related cancers include oesophageal, gallbladder, kidney and throat cancer.
The most common way for asbestos fibres to enter the body is via breathing in. In fact, asbestos containing materials (ACM) are generally not thought to be dangerous unless they release dust or fibres into the air where they can be inhaled. Damage and deterioration can break ACMs down, making fibre release more likely.
What to do if asbestos is found in the property?
According to the British Lung Foundation, it isn’t all that unusual to find asbestos in the home, and in most cases there’s nothing to worry about. As long as it’s been well maintained, is not disintegrating and hasn’t been disturbed, there is no immediate hazard to your health.
Most residential property surveys will note common asbestos materials used in the building industry and advise further investigation. Even a full RICS Building Survey is unlikely to give any advice regarding the condition of any ACMs in the property, or the costs involved in removing them.
If your home survey has flagged up ACMs, don’t panic. The best policy is to remain calm and seek further expert help. Don’t under any circumstances deal with any asbestos removal yourself. It needs a trained, accredited and licenced operator to dispose of it properly.
At Crucial Environmental, we carry out Home Buyer Asbestos Surveys to provide specialist analysis and insight, including full testing in UKAS accredited laboratories along with comprehensive reporting. Asbestos surveys can be heavy going to the untrained eye, which is why we have developed this service specially for property buyers, giving clear and unbiased information in jargon-free language.