What to do if you have asbestos

9th June 2014

Widely used as an insulation, flooring and roofing material in the mid-20th century, asbestos cement can be found in a wide range of older residential and commercial properties. However, a ban on the material ensured asbestos was no longer used in the fabrics of newer constructions and is extremely unlikely to be used anywhere in modern buildings.

Unfortunately asbestos still remains in some of Britain’s schools, dockyards, garages, factories and warehouses. Internal walls, ceilings and attics may contain some of these materials and even older products, such as stove-top pads, may feature asbestos. Worst of all, it’s difficult to tell whether a material contains asbestos by appearance.

If you’re a business owner, homeowner or a person working in a building you suspect has asbestos, it can be difficult to know what to do if you’ve never encountered the substance before.

Encountering asbestos

If you suspect a material contains asbestos, your first action should be to not touch or scratch at the material. Every precaution should be taken to avoid damaging asbestos material as asbestos can cause serious damage to the lungs. The material is responsible for over 4,500 deaths every year and if high levels of these fibres are inhaled, there is a risk of developing lung diseases, including mesothelioma, as well as asbestosis and diffuse pleural thickening.

Unfortunately for people who have worked with asbestos for many years, the damage may already be done. Working near the material as part of the job or having washed the dusty clothing of those in contact with asbestos may have had a significant effect already. According to Cancer Research, 2,570 people were diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2011 and 2,310 deaths were recorded in the same year. It is a killer, making it paramount asbestos is treated with the highest concern.

Dealing with asbestos 

Sweeping, dusting or vacuuming near the material is out of the question. Instead, there are three options available: leave alone, repair or remove.

Leave alone

If asbestos materials are out of harms way and aren’t going to be readily damaged by day-to-day activity, leaving it alone is often the best course of action. The release of fibres is only triggered when coming into contact with the material so steering clear can often be the optimal way to deal with the material. However, if there is a problem there are corrective actions available in repairing or removing. 

Repair

You should always seek professional advice before attempting to repair asbestos as it requires either sealing or covering.

Sealing, also called encapsulation, involves treating the material with a sealant to bind the fibres together or coat the material, thus ensuring fibres are not released. Coating, on the other hand, involves covering asbestos with a material to prevent the release of fibres. Either way, major and minor repairs require the expertise of a professional trained in asbestos regulation and repair, due to the potential release of dangerous fibres upon contact with the material.

Remove

Despite posing the greatest risk of fibre release, removal is the best option for those who want to get rid of asbestos completely. It is also the best option if you’re making significant changes to your property – knocking through a wall to create a larger office, for instance – and requires a licenced contractor to undertake the operation. Removing asbestos without a professional, licenced contractor on board could cause significant damage to personal health.

Regardless of the avenue you take, suspicions of asbestos should always be confirmed (or denied) by a professional asbestos expert. It’s not always easy to tell whether a product has asbestos due to the sheer variety of colours and mixes that can be found, so don’t take the risk. It might prove extremely dangerous in the short and long term.