Sunday, October 5, 2014

Asbestos - Part 1 - Is asbestos really a problem in buildings?

Despite popular belief the discovery of asbestos containing materials in a building does not need to be a serious problem.  There is nothing written in the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 that states that asbestos must be removed from a building

Most of the publicity that asbestos has received for many years is negative and would have us believe that anyone who works or occupies a building that contains asbestos are at significant risk, however this is far from the truth. It is also true to say that those who worked with asbestos, whether it’s extraction or use/installation in buildings and were oblivious to the associated health risks at the time are those who are suffering asbestos related diseases such as Mesothelioma, Lung Cancer, Asbestosis and the like for which many have sadly died.  Having said that, the answer to the article title is quite simple, Asbestos is not a problem in buildings as long it is identified, managed and controlled.

Before delving into the many publicised problems with asbestos it is first worth understanding why its use was so popular and why it is still found extensively in buildings throughout the UK.  Asbestos was such a versatile and durable mineral that it lent itself to so many different uses in buildings due to its many positive qualities.  You may be surprised to learn that Asbestos has been used for many centuries in different forms throughout the World however its use became much more widespread in the UK from the early part of the twentieth century and was extensively used in UK buildings between 1950 and 1980. In fact asbestos is still used in some countries today despite the many know health risks associated with it.  There are still vast amount of asbestos deposits present around the World which are extracted using mining techniques which are much the same as processes used for extraction of other minerals.

Positive qualities of Asbestos for use in buildings - Asbestos is chemically inert which means that it does not react with other chemicals, it is heat resistant making it non-flammable even at high temperatures, it is alkaline and acid resistant, water resistant, strong in tension, flexible (it can be used and made into rigid components or spun and woven like cotton), it has no detectable smell, it is resilient and can last for many years and it is extremely resistant to abrasion.  All in all, when you read through these qualities it is easy to see why asbestos was so popular and used for so many different products/components in buildings.

For a number of years in the UK asbestos has been classified as a ‘deleterious material’, which is defined by Longworth Consulting as ‘materials or building techniques which are dangerous to health, or which are environmentally unfriendly, or which tend to fail in practice. Often listed in property agreements, appointments and building contracts where the developer, consultant or contractor is required not to use them’.  The Health & Safety Executive’s (HSE), ‘Working with Asbestos in Buildings’ leaflet identifies the point at which asbestos was banned from use in the UK, ‘blue and brown asbestos (the two most dangerous forms) have not been imported into the UK for nearly 20 years and their use was banned in 1985. White asbestos was banned (except for a small number of specialised uses) in 1999’. Therefore, although asbestos has not been used as a building component/produce for nearly fifteen years we are still seeing deaths and serious illnesses as a result of exposure to asbestos many years ago.

The positive attributes of asbestos described above are conversely the main reasons why asbestos related diseases are nearly always incurable. Working on or near damaged asbestos-containing materials or breathing in high levels of asbestos fibres, which may have been many hundreds of times that of environmental levels could increase the chances of getting an asbestos-related disease.  Due to asbestos fibres being so hard to destroy, the body cannot break them down or remove them once they are lodged in lung or body tissues. They remain in place and over a period of time they can cause disease.  There are many instances where asbestos related symptoms have not manifested themselves for almost 30 years, however this will also depend on the general health of an individual, which can significantly reduce the point in which symptoms will show themselves. 

Although the above may seem to be alarmist the truth of the matter is that asbestos containing materials in buildings are perfectly safe as long as they are identified, managed and controlled. Asbestos will only become a problem in buildings if it is disturbed or becomes damaged.  Despite popular belief the discovery of asbestos containing materials in a building does not need to be a serious problem.  There is nothing written in the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 that states that asbestos must be removed from a building, in fact If existing asbestos containing materials are in good condition and are not likely to be disturbed, they may be left in place as long as their condition is monitored and managed to ensure that they do not become damaged.

Over the next few weeks I will provide some guidance of the many uses of asbestos in buildings and also provide some examples of where you may find asbestos in a building. For those who are not familiar with asbestos I suspect that some of the uses will come as a surprise.

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1 comment:

  1. very useful article, particularly now when construction is back and many old buildings need to be demolished to give way to new construction. It is my understanding that if asbestos is found at the site that is to be demolished, local building authorities require a special disposal protocol to prevent workers from getting exposes to it.