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Are You Asbestos Aware?

are you asbestos aware?

We're always talking about DIY and renovating. How to make a home better, how to rip out walls, pull of tiles, smash up a kitchen, tear up the floor - you get the picture. But what often doesn't get talked about are the dangers behind a renovation. There's many, but the most hidden and potentially dangerous of them all, is Asbestos. It's a word you've probably heard of, but do you know what it is? What it does? What it looks like? Where you can find it? Well, if you're renovating a house - you really need to know this stuff.

1st-7th April is Asbestos Awareness Week and whilst it might be a dull topic, it's a really important one, particularly to DIYers and renovators - and I thought it was about time I created a post dedicated to it. So let's start at the beginning...

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a material that was used in the building sector for many many years. A whole 50+ in fact. Back in the day, it was regarded as a new-found amazing material and the dangers behind it were completely unknown. It's resilient, durable, has great insulating properties and it's fire-resistant too - it was the perfect building material. Years passed and people who had been working with asbestos started developing health problems, and only then was the discovery made at how dangerous this stuff really is. Asbestos is a material that once broken, releases fibres into the air. Tiny tiny fibres that cannot be seen with the naked eye - but they're sharp and in-bed themselves into your lungs once breathed in. They cannot be removed and they will sit there, forever. In small quantities, this is little threat - but in larger amounts (although exact measurements are unknown!) eventually these fibres can cause problems like mesothelioma (a type of cancer) and asbestosis (scarring of the lungs, causing problems breathing). Essentially and sadly all asbestos-related illnesses are currently incurable and most are fatal.

Asbestos is still currently the UK's biggest workplace killer, since it's tradespeople on building sites every day who are most at risk. But of course, if you're a DIYer or renovating, you're also at risk. Thousands people each year die from Asbestos-related illnesses and as such, it's so freaking important, as renovators we know about it. Where to look for it, the dangers of it, and how to handle it. 

Does Your Home Have Asbestos?

In short, most probably. It wasn't mentioned by a surveyor when you bought the house? That does not mean your house is asbestos free. In fact, I'd say it's more reason for concern. Asbestos can be hiding far beneath the depths of a room than what a surveyor can see on his hour-long investigation. Any home that was built before 2000 may contain asbestos - that's a freaking lot of homes and one statistic I read suggested that around 2 in 4 houses in the UK still have asbestos in them. Unless you have guarantees your home is asbestos-free, I would treat any home as if it may have some lurking somewhere within it, especially if your home hasn't been renovated in recent years.


What Does Asbestos Look Like?

My grandparents had an asbestos roof on their garage, so for that reason I always thought of asbestos being a grey corrugated sheet. It is in fact, much more than that. And put simply, it does not look like one single thing - in fact, it has a whole range of disguises, which makes it all the more tricky to identify. Lots of materials "look like" asbestos and whilst there are many materials that look like it, they may not actually be it. So whatever pre-conceptions you might have of how asbestos "looks" - you may have been misled. Asbestos cannot be identified by naked eye alone, so it's more important to know how it was used and where you're likely to find it within the home, than how it "looks". That being said, here are some photos of asbestos found around the home.


Where Can You Find Asbestos in the Home?

As I said previously, asbestos is great for insulation and a great material for fire-resistance. This is already giving us some clues to its use, but here's a run down of all the places you may find asbestos within in the home. This list is not limited, and do please bare in mind - much like timber or MDF, DIYers  in the past may have used it for a whole range of other uses not mentioned. 

On the Roof - This can often be found in two forms - corrugated sheets and roof tiles often used over garages and sheds.
In the loft - Asbestos was used a loose insulation and usually looks like fluffy cotton wool in this state. This is the WORST kind of asbestos.
Around Pipes - It was also used as insulating lagging around pipes
On the Bath - Old bath panels can be made from asbestos
On the Floor - Old vinyl floor tiles may be made from asbestos
On the Ceiling - Ceiling tiles may be made from asbestos and it was also often used in artex as well.
On the Outside - Gutters and rainwater pipes may be made from asbestos.
Partition Walls of Sheds/Garages - Asbestos also comes in the form of cement board and may be used in walls of garages and sheds. (we had this kind, which you can see here)
Behind Fireplaces - Asbestos insulation board can be found behind fireplaces
Behind Fuseboards - Insulation board may also be found behind a fuse box
Behind Boilers - Or even behind boilers.
Water Tanks - old water tanks may even be made from it.

where can you find asbestos in the home?


As you can see, it can be anywhere and everywhere! It's so important to be aware of where you may come across it, as essentially this alone is the awareness you need to be able to stop and think... Is it asbestos? 


What Should You Do if You think You've Found Asbestos?

Don't panic and don't move the damn thing! Asbestos is only a cause for concern when it's disturbed. So if you have a garage roof made from the stuff, that's fine. As long as it's not breaking apart, there's no need to worry. It can stay there for years and years and you'll be absolutely fine. Asbestos in its solid form, is not any cause for concern, it's releasing fibres you need to worry about.

If you think you've damaged some asbestos during a renovation, don't panic either. It certainly doesn't mean you're going to drop dead. Most people who have experienced health problems from asbestos exposure have done so through a pro-longed exposure, so chances are - you're absolutely fine. And don't forget, it takes years and years for any problems to develop (we're talking usually a minimum of 25!), so don't let it torture you either! 


How Can you REALLY identify Asbestos?

Since asbestos has a whole range of disguises, the only way to truly identify asbestos is to send it to a lab for testing. There are 'DIY' sample kits you can buy to do this - but you need to make absolutely sure you know how to handle asbestos in order to take a sample safely and also be aware of the risks that go with that. Alternatively you can also pay an asbestos handler to come and do a sample testing for you. You can ask asbestos removal companies to come and "take a look" - but in my experience, they'll treat anything that "might be" asbestos like it is asbestos. A sample is the only way to truly know for sure and if it's not asbestos - and you could be saving yourself a bloomin' fortune if it turns out not to be asbestos!

We've used a DIY Sampling kit in the past from Cornerstone Safety - results were quick and you'll also be informed on the type of asbestos as well, which is important for many disposal companies. Some types of asbestos are arguably more dangerous than others.


How to Get rid of Asbestos?

Asbestos materials are broken down into several categories - with the most common being Chrysotile, Amosite, Crocidolite and Tremolite. Each kind is dangerous in its own way, and the exact  kind of asbestos you may be dealing with can only determined by sample testing. The UK law divides asbestos into two groups - Materials that require licensed handling and materials that can be handled without a license. In short, some materials release fibres in large amounts more easily than others. Licensable work includes all materials that easily releases fibres - this includes handling pipe lagging, sprayed coatings, insulation board and loose-fill insulation. These may NOT be handled by anyone who is not qualified to do so. This means you need to pay someone or a company with appropriate handling skills. They'll thoroughly seal off the house, possibly even monitor fibres in the air. It's a big big job and it's not cheap either. (You can read the full list of licensed vs. non-licensed work here)

If you have other types of asbestos (always check up-to-date HSE advice first!), then you are within your rights to remove and dispose of it yourself. But you cannot launch yourself in with a crow-bar and chuck it all into the wheelie bin. You need a full suit, an appropriate asbestos-proof mask and ensure you dampen the material you're working on (this will stop the spread of dust!) and keep it damp, but not wet. Try not to break, cut or use any power tools and DO NOT hoover any dust with a household vacuum - the particles are far too fine to be vacuumed up with a normal vacuum and you will only push the particles further around the room. Asbestos must be put into clear bags and double-bagged up. Properly sealed and appropriately labelled, in a clear and visible way. You can then arrange its disposal via a private company, or you may be able to dispose of it with prior arrangement at your local recycling centre - this one depends on area, so ALWAYS check. Obviously there are still risks with removing asbestos yourself, particularly if the asbestos you're removing is inside the house and it's not possible to remove without breaking. So do think carefully before you decide to go 'DIY'. Any released fibres will mingle in the air for a long time afterwards.


Precautions You can take BEFORE Renovating

There are specialist surveyors out there specifically for finding asbestos prior to a full house renovation - and it's really worth considering investing money into an Asbestos survey before you go tearing everything apart in a renovation. They're absolutely not cheap, you're paying for the risk factor as well as numerous samples and somebodies expertise. BUT, you need to consider whether it's worth it for your own and your families health. Or maybe even your builders. Builders and tradespeople should be trained sufficiently on asbestos awareness as employers are legally bound to provide training to any job which might involve asbestos, but in cases of self-employment this isn't always the case. Which means you cannot 100% rely on them to identify asbestos if they were to come across it. They might be oblivious to the risks, or happy to take them - but do you want them making that decision on your behalf for you?

If you do decide against a survey - there are other things you can do as a precaution. There's a world of information out there on the web, and whilst a lot of it is scary stuff - it really might be worth taking the time to look at it. From infographics and articles like this one or online courses like this one (there's also an app!) that takes you through your own asbestos training, or even just remembering the "Take 5 and Stay Alive" Campaign, which is sadly no longer running (er, why?). It was mainly targeted at tradespeople, but it's completely applicable to DIYers as well. I managed to find a snippet of the "5" which you can see below, but it doesn't matter what you do or how you do it though - just make sure you know enough about Asbestos to be aware of it, should you un-beknowingly come across it.

asbestos awareness


So I hope I haven't scared any of you too much(!!!) but renovating absolutely is not all about picking out pretty tiles and launching yourself into a house with a crow-bar willy-nilly. There are hidden causes for concern and sometimes taking a step back and just reminding ourselves of asbestos (easily forgotten amongst the renovation excitement!) and that we should all be aware that it could be lurking there, waiting for us....

I'd love to know any of your experiences with asbestos. Have you discovered any? Had to re-mortgage your house to get rid of it? Please do share below! :)


Here's a full info-graphic for more detail, taken from Asbestos Removalists.

UK asbestos infographic

1 comment

  1. This article goes a long way to demonstrate just how dangerous it can be to be unaware of asbestos. It's really important people realise that asbestos doesn't just plague old houses, it can surprise you the places you can find it. You mention that it was used over 50 years ago, but that still accounts for many of the houses built in the UK.

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