21st Nov 2022 -

The real risk of asbestos

You might have heard of asbestos horror stories. The naturally-occurring mineral fibre, once used in buildings for insulation, and flooring and roofing materials cause concern for many because of the health risks it poses when it is disturbed. Before people knew that the fibres released when asbestos is unsettled posed a risk to their health, the material was widely used. Now banned in many countries, if you find asbestos in your home, it can present an array of problems.

Why asbestos was used in UK homes

Asbestos refers to six minerals, all of which have great fire-resistant and insulating qualities, which made it a building material of choice for many construction trades, as well as for use in automobile parts. These minerals are chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, anthophyllite, tremolite and actinolite. The three most commonly used types of asbestos were:


Also known as white asbestos, which is by far the most commonly used variant. It was used in the vast majority of asbestos-containing products manufactured during the peak of asbestos use. Chrysotile asbestos was used in a range of products, including adhesives, brake pads, fireproofing, cement, plasterboard, gaskets, insulation, roofing and vinyl tiles. 


Also known as brown asbestos, amosite was also widely used. It can be found in products including cement sheets, fire protection, gaskets, insulation, roofing products and vinyl tiles. 


Also known as blue asbestos, crocidolite may have been used less than the other two, but it is believed to have caused more deaths than any other type of asbestos. It was used in products such as acid storage battery casings, ceiling tiles, cement sheets, fireproofing and insulation. Throughout the 1800s and 1900s, asbestos use boomed.

Not only does it have insulating, fire-resistant, heat-resistant and sound-absorbing qualities, but it was also cheap and widely available. That made it a great building material. Mined asbestos minerals were broken into loose fibre bundles to use, or mixed with other materials, typically cement. 

As the Industrial Revolution started to take hold across the world, asbestos was used in almost every area of construction and manufacturing. There was a huge demand, and it was mined heavily. With the information we know now, that even second-hand exposure from washing asbestos-covered clothing can be dangerous, it is alarming to think of the risks miners - and anyone who worked with asbestos - faced.

Symptoms can appear years after exposure

Now there are rules and regulations to control anyone’s exposure to asbestos. For example, asbestos testing is required before any major demolition or repair works are carried out. But before that, workers could have been exposed to high concentrations of asbestos fibres. And what makes this so deadly is that many symptoms of related diseases can take years to appear. Diseases like asbestosis can affect tradespeople who worked with the material before the effects of exposure were truly known around 10 to 40 years later.

Asbestos still exists in many buildings

Unfortunately, exposure is not a risk of the past. Because asbestos was used so often in building materials, it can become a health risk if it deteriorates and starts crumbling, or if the material is disrupted. Asbestos exposure could occur during repairs, renovations, removal and maintenance. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), there are around 5,000 asbestos-related deaths every year. To put that into context, it is more than the number of people killed on the road and around 20 tradesmen die each week as a result of past exposure.

How can you be exposed?

People can be exposed to asbestos fibres either by inhaling or swallowing them. It is more common to inhale asbestos fibres because when people are renovating old buildings if asbestos was originally used, it can create dust in tiny - and dangerous - particles. These asbestos fibres are not visible to the naked eye. Inhalation can also happen when older asbestos-containing materials begin to break down, which is why it is important to know where asbestos was used.

In the past, heavy exposure would have been caused by inhalation during the mining and processing of asbestos. Asbestos fibres can also be swallowed if people consume contaminated food or water. For example, asbestos has been used in cement pipes which water could flow through. Due to the increased chance of exposure, certain people will be more at risk.

This includes older people who worked in shipbuilding, railway engineering and factories that made asbestos products, or in asbestos mines. It also includes those who lived with these workers, as dust particles could have easily travelled home. Because asbestos is still a risk, certain workers have to take additional care too. This includes carpenters, plumbers, electricians, painters and builders. 

Asbestos-related diseases

It is important to protect yourself because asbestos exposure can have serious consequences. Asbestos can cause the following diseases:


Almost exclusively related to asbestos exposure, this is cancer that can affect both the lining of the lungs and the lining surrounding the lower digestive tract - it is often fatal. If mesothelioma is in the lining of the lungs, symptoms can include chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue (extreme tiredness), a high temperature (fever), sweating (particularly at night), a persistent cough, loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss, swollen fingertips, tummy pain or swelling, feeling or being sick, loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss, diarrhoea or constipation. 

Asbestos-related lung cancer

This can affect either the outer lining of the lungers or the internal portions. It is the same as lung cancer from other causes and has the following symptoms:

  • A cough that does not go away after two or three weeks.
  • Chest infections that keep coming back.
  • Coughing up blood.
  • An ache or pain when breathing or coughing.
  • Persistent breathlessness.
  • Persistent tiredness or lack of energy.
  • Loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss.


A long-term lung condition where asbestos fibres have caused scarring. This can lead to your lungs shrinking and hardening and being unable to hold as much air as they should. Symptoms include shortness of breath, persistent cough, wheezing, extreme tiredness (fatigue), pain in your chest or shoulder and in more advanced cases, clubbed (swollen) fingertips. 

Pleural thickening

This happens when the lining of the lung (pleura) thickens and swells up. It causes discomfort in the chest, and shortness of breath and the lung itself can be squeezed if the thickening gets worse. Symptoms include breathlessness, difficulty drawing a deep breath, shortness of breath, even with mild exertion, chest pain when drawing a deep breath, pain with coughing, and dull, chronic chest pain. 

Finding out if you have asbestos in your home

There are two ways of classifying asbestos-containing building products, and understanding the difference can help when deciding how much of a risk asbestos could pose in your home.

Friable asbestos products

These are soft and crumbly and could break up and turn into dust under light pressure. Friable asbestos products contain high percentages of asbestos and should be considered dangerous because of the ease at which the fibres can break up and be released into the air. You can find friable asbestos products in homes, including loose-fill roof insulation, spray-on insulation, insulation for hot water pipes or domestic heaters, backing material on floor tiles, decorative ceiling coatings, and brick and plaster sealants. 

Bonded asbestos products

These are typically made up of compounds mixed with a smaller proportion of asbestos. Bonded asbestos products are solid and rigid, with the asbestos fibres tightly packed into the product. For example, asbestos and cement were often mixed. While bonded asbestos products remain in good condition, the risk to homeowners is quite low.

They do not release any asbestos fibres into the air. But if the product becomes damaged (for example, by bad weather), parts of a bonded asbestos material can become friable and pose more of a risk. You can find bonded asbestos products in homes, including in roofing, water or other pipes, shingles, wall cladding (interior or exterior), and thermal boards. As a general rule, you can use the following timeline to determine whether many asbestos products were used in your home.


  • If your house was built or renovated before the mid-1980s, it is highly likely that asbestos-containing products were used.
  • If your house was built or renovated after 1990, it is unlikely that asbestos-containing products were used. However, some homes may still have used white asbestos until the total ban in 1999.
  • If your house was built or renovated between the mid-1980s and 1990, it is likely it has asbestos-containing products.

Even if a house contains asbestos products, it does not necessarily mean the risk is immediate. Of course, houses experience normal wear and tear but provided bonded asbestos products are in good condition, you can leave them and monitor them. If there are signs of damage or deterioration, this is when you need to act.

However, you might be more likely to be exposed if there is an accident or if you need to do essential household maintenance. Accidental exposure could happen if you need to use power tools for drilling, sanding or sawing, for example. If the material contains asbestos, fibres will be disturbed.

Where you might find asbestos in the home

Put simply, asbestos can be found in any building built or refurbished before the year 2000 – but the likelihood varies, as discussed above. It is also more likely to be used in certain areas of the home than others. As outlined by HSE, you can find asbestos in the following places:

Inside the home

  • Asbestos cement water tank
  • Pipe lagging
  • Loose-fill insulation
  • Textured decorative coating
  • Asbestos insulating board (AIB) ceiling tiles
  • AIB ceiling tiles
  • AIB bath panel
  • Toilet seat and cistern
  • AIB behind the fuse box
  • AIB airing cupboard and/or sprayed insulation coating boiler
  • AIB partition wall
  • AIB interior window panel
  • AIB around boiler
  • Vinyl floor tiles
  • AIB behind fire

Outside the home

  • Gutters and asbestos cement downpipes
  • Soffits – AIB or asbestos cement
  • AIB exterior window panel
  • Asbestos cement roof
  • Asbestos cement panels
  • Roofing felt

More places asbestos has been used

Different types of asbestos were used in products throughout the 20th century, including in household appliances like ovens, ironing boards, toasters and hair dryers. It was also widely used in the automotive industry and in all kinds of buildings, including offices and schools. But one use is particularly scary. Crocidolite – or blue asbestos – fibres were used in Kent Micronite cigarette filters produced between 1952–1956. Originally marketed as an innovative safety feature to protect smokers’ health, it was the most dangerous cigarette ever manufactured. 

The laws and regulations

Throughout the 1990s, prior to the 1999 ban on all asbestos use, numerous regulations sought to protect employees from the associated health risks. This included the likes of The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations Employers in 1987. As well as making employers responsible for the health and safety of their employees and visitors who could be exposed to asbestos fibres, it ensured certain checks took place before any asbestos-based work started.

This was to determine the type of work and asbestos, as well as the likelihood of exposure to fibres. Asbestos awareness training was also a necessity for employees. After the 1999 complete ban on asbestos use, attention turned to the duty to manage the risk of asbestos already in use. The Control of Asbestos 2006 regulations were notable because they combined previous laws about how asbestos is handled at work.

It requires anyone responsible for maintaining a building to make assessments about the asbestos risk to ensure workers are suitably protected from exposure. This could involve removing or managing asbestos. The 2006 act allows existing asbestos to remain intact, but only if it is in good condition. All of the regulations are designed to eliminate the risk of asbestos exposure for workers.

Further rules and regulations

To ensure it was up to scratch with the European Union Directive on asbestos exposure, in 2012, the Control of Asbestos Regulations Act was added to previous rules. To improve the safety of non-licensed asbestos work, the act introduced obligations such as:

  1. Proper notification of any work.
  2. The need to keep records.
  3. Medical supervision.

Anyone managing property should be aware of the current regulations. But at the moment, private domestic properties are exempt. For homeowners, this means it is up to them to decide what is best.

Removing asbestos safely

Without any problems, asbestos fibres should not become airborne. But any disruption to asbestos can release the dangerous fibres. The problem is many people need to renovate their homes and they want to do it safely. To reduce asbestos exposure, you need to either remove or seal asbestos-containing materials. But if someone inexperienced does this, there is the risk of accidentally releasing fibres.

Hiring the right professional

Even the keenest DIYers should consider working with specialised companies on projects involving asbestos in the home. The right professionals will know that rules are different for homeowners and contractors. Work with asbestos falls under an HSE permissions regime – which means they could need to give permission before any work goes ahead. This ensures the risks are properly controlled. It all depends on what category the work falls into:

Non-licensed work

Used to describe work where very few fibres are likely to be released. It can be carried out by unlicensed people, but they should be trained and able to follow the usual regulations for handling asbestos. An example would be the removal of a small area of textured decorative coatings using suitable dust-reducing methods.

Notifiable non-licensed work

Depending on certain factors (the type of work you are going to do, the type of material you are going to work on and its condition), contractors might need to notify the relevant enforcing authority. An example would be asbestos cement products (e.g. roof sheeting) where the material has been substantially damaged or broken up.

Licensed work

Most high-risk asbestos work must be carried out by a licensed contractor. This includes nearly all indoor or long-term work. It is an offence to carry out licensable work with asbestos without a licence. Examples include the removal of pipe lagging or any work involving loose fill insulation.

Due to the risks, it is always recommended you get professional help to deal with any asbestos in your home – especially if you are working with friable asbestos products or doing any demolition work. They have the specialist equipment, understand the need to take samples and will comply with the HSE standards. To find the right tradespeople for the job, look out for:

The right accreditations and licences

To carry out asbestos work, contractors should be HSE-approved. You can also look for those who are a member of the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association (ARCA), as it is a good indication of their commitment to compliance and professionalism. If they are removing asbestos, the contractor also needs a Hazardous Waste Carriers Licence.

Liability insurance

As part of the costs, contractors should include liability insurance. This gives you financial protection if any damage is caused by the accident during asbestos work carried out by the contractor. It is as much protection for you as it is for their business. 

Good reviews

When you are hiring any tradesperson, reviews are important. It will give you an idea of what other jobs they have done, and whether other homeowners were happy with the work carried out.

The essential safety do’s and don’ts

Good tradespeople should always act responsibly, following the recommended ways of working with asbestos. They are working in your home, with potentially dangerous material, so it pays off to know what is – and is not – safe. If the work is being carried out indoors, everyone else in the home should be kept away from that area until the job is finished.

Contractors should isolate the idea not only by closing any internal doors but by sealing them. Where possible, external doors and windows can be left open to maximise the amount of ventilation available. The area can also be covered with good-quality plastic sheeting, which is designed to catch any debris. Any tradesmen working in this area shouldn’t then walk through the rest of the house if it’s unprotected.

If the work is being carried out outside, then once again you need to keep people away. To do this, you will need to let any nearby neighbours know and advise them to close their windows. You might also need to put up signs to give any unplanned visitors warning.

Any play or garden equipment should be removed too. Ideally, the work should be carried out on a day when there is limited wind. Contractors should still close all windows and doors, and try to seal air vents where possible. Again, plastic sheeting can be used to cover the ground outside and any vegetation.


As well as these recommendations tailored to where the work is being carried out, the following guidelines should be followed by anyone working on the project:

Wear an appropriate respirator
Normal dust masks are not up to the job. You need something specifically designed for asbestos use. 
Use powered hand tools
To minimise the amount of dust created, any electric tool should be avoided. Instead, use tools like a guillotine, hand saw or hand-powered drill. The idea is to reduce the amount of cutting or breaking of any material that contains asbestos. 
Wear disposable clothing
This will help to prevent the contamination of clothing and footwear. 
Stack materials carelessly
If two asbestos products slide over one another, the surface could be broken. Even once removed, you have to treat asbestos-containing products carefully. 
Shower afterwards
Although you have worn protective clothing, to try and remove any remaining dust, it is best to shower and wash your hair. 
Leave asbestos materials around
Asbestos should always be disposed of correctly. If waste is left around, it could be broken or crushed by mistake. 
Wet down the material
If you are working with asbestos cement products, you can lightly wet it down before you start and throughout. Just remember to use low-pressure water. 

Removing asbestos is no easy job. Recommended guidelines and rules are in place to keep people safe. That is why it is best to leave the job to professionals, who have experience working with this potentially dangerous material.