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 in flooring and roofing materials, causes 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, it still presents a problem for many homeowners or property managers looking to renovate. 


Why – and when – 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, this 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 a range of products, including:

  • Adhesives
  • Brake pads
  • Fireproofing
  • Cement
  • Drywall
  • Gaskets
  • Insulation
  • Roofing
  • 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
  • Vinyl tiles


Also known as blue asbestos, crocidolite may have been used less than the other two, but it’s 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
  • Insulation

Throughout the 1800s and 1900s, asbestos use boomed. Not only does it have insulating, fire resistant, heat resistant and sound absorbing qualities, it was 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’s alarming to think of the risks miners – and anyone who worked with asbestos – faced.

During the 20th century, the top ten asbestos-producing countries were:

  • Brazil
  • Canada
  • China
  • Cyprus
  • Greece
  • Italy
  • Russia
  • South Africa
  • The United States
  • Zimbabwe

Worldwide asbestos production peaked in 1973 and although the UK wasn’t a top producing country, it imported and used a lot of asbestos throughout the century. You can see how the supply of asbestos continued to affect people’s health in the UK after the peak of mining and use:

Source: The Great Britain Asbestos Survey 1971-2005

Did people know the health problems with asbestos?

Unfortunately, there seemed to be a delay in knowledge about asbestos-related illnesses and action. In fact, asbestos was only fully banned in the UK construction industry in 1999. Asbestos had been used for around 100 years by then. Here is a rough timeline of major events in the UK:


Around 20,000 tonnes of asbestos are imported to the UK every year


The first case of asbestosis is published in the British Medical Journal

1930s - 1950s

Asbestos use grows


The Asbestos Industry Regulations first asbestos laws passed to control the amount of asbestos dust in factories

1950s - 1970s

At the peak, the UK imported around 170,000 tonnes of asbestos every year


Amosite and crocidolite (brown and blue asbestos) were banned in the UK


The manufacture and supply of all asbestos products is banned in the UK

1999 onwards

Asbestos still poses a risk due to use in hundreds of thousands of buildings, including homes, schools and offices
Source: HASpod

The problem with asbestos is two-fold:

Symptoms can appear years after exposure

There are now 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 prior to 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
  • 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’s 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 in or swallowing it. It’s more common to inhale asbestos fibres because when people are renovating old buildings, if asbestos was originally used, it can create a dust of tiny – and dangerous – particles. These asbestos fibres aren’t visible to the naked eye.

Inhalation can also happen when older asbestos-containing materials begin to break down, which is why it’s 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 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
  • Builders

Asbestos-related diseases

It’s 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 a cancer that can affect both the lining of the lungs and the lining surrounding the lower digestive tract. It’s often fatal. Symptoms include:

If mesothelioma is in the lining of the lungs:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • A high temperature (fever) and sweating, particularly at night
  • A persistent cough
  • Loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss
  • Clubbed (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’s the same as lung cancer from other causes, and has the following symptoms:

  • A cough that doesn’t 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
  • 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, 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
  • Dull, chronic chest pain

Source: HSE and NHS

Drill on Paper

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 in:

  • Loose fill roof insulation
  • Spray-on insulation
  • Insulation for hot water pipes or domestic heaters
  • Backing material on floor tiles
  • Decorative ceiling coatings
  • Brick and plaster sealants

Bonded asbestos products

These are typically made up of a compound 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 don’t 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
  • 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’s highly likely asbestos-containing products were used
If your house was built or renovated after 1990, it’s unlikely 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 doesn’t 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 it and monitor. 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’s an accident or 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.

Asbestos in the home

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’s 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 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

Other 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 smoker’s health, it was the most dangerous cigarette ever manufactured.


Laws & Regulations

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 of asbestos use, attention turned to the duty to manage the risk of asbestos already in use. The Control of Asbestos 2006 regulations was notable because it combined previous laws about how asbestos is handled at work.

It requires anyone responsible for maintaining a building to make assessments about 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’s in good condition.

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

  • Proper notification of any work

  • The need to keep records

  • 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’s best.

Building Site

Removing asbestos safely

Without any problems, asbestos fibres shouldn’t 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’s the risk of accidentally releasing fibres.

Hiring the right professional

Even the most keen 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 a HSE permissioning 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 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’s an offence to carry out licensable work with asbestos without a licence. Examples include removal of pipe lagging or any work involving loose fill insulation.

Due to the risks, it’s always recommended you get professional help to deal with any asbestos in your home – especially if you’re 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’s a good indication of their commitment to compliance and professionalism. If they’re 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’s as much protection for you as it is for their business.

Good reviews

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

Building Meeting

The essential safety do’s and don’ts

Good tradespeople should always act responsibly, following the recommended ways of working with asbestos. They’re working in your home, with a potentially dangerous material, so it pays off to know what is – and isn’t – 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’ll 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 where there’s 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 aren’t 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’ve worn protective clothing, to try and remove any remaining dust, it’s 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’re 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’s why it’s best to leave the job to professionals, who have experience working with this potentially dangerous material.