Asbestos has been labeled “the hidden killer” because it causes several horrendous, often fatal diseases, including at least two types of cancer. In the UK alone, it is blamed for more than 4,000 deaths each year, often after the person has suffered from a series of dreadful symptoms. For this reason you need to be aware of the dangers of asbestos in the home, and you should take immediate steps to avoid being negatively affected in any way whatsoever.
Asbestos and its Uses
Asbestos is a fibrous material that occurs naturally in the environment. So where it is present, we are inadvertently exposed to it, but only minimally. The problems arise in situations where there is a high concentration of fibers (in manufactured products for example), particularly for those working with or near to anything that contains asbestos.
The danger lies largely in the ease with which we can breathe in the tiny fibers, and the fact that the effects of asbestos are cumulative. While asbestos has been classified as a human carcinogen, it can take anywhere from 15 to 60 years for symptoms to present. By the time you realize you have been affected, it could be too late! You’ve been breathing it in for far too long.
Asbestos was first mined and used commercially in North America in the late 1880s after it was found that the fibers were both heat and fire resistant, and did not conduct electricity. It was then used extensively during World War Two, and thereafter in many industries worldwide. For instance the motor industry found it was ideal for clutch pads and brake pads for cars, trucks and so on. The shipbuilding industry found it was a hugely effective insulator, and so it was used around boilers, hot water pipers and steam pipes to keep the heat in. The construction industry recognized its insulation properties and used it to both keep the heat in and the cold out. The construction industry also discovered it was perfect for strengthening cement and certain plastics, and an ideal material, for roofing products, for fireproofing, and for acoustics, because it helps to absorb sound… which is why you might find it in your home!
In the UK asbestos was one of the most common building materials used from the 1950s until it was banned from use in homes, commercial buildings and for machinery in 1999.
In the USA, the first ban of asbestos use was imposed in the late 1970s – in relation to gas fireplaces and certain compounds used for patching wallboard – due to the realization that the harmful fibers were released into the air during use. In 1989 all new uses of asbestos were banned in the USA. But as in the UK and other parts of the world, existing materials containing asbestos were not affected. So homes built with materials containing asbestos were not an issue.
Where you Might Find Asbestos in Your Home
The main problem with asbestos is that you can’t see or smell it, but because it was used as a common component in a wide range of building materials for many years, you may be exposed to it without you even knowing. By the same token, if materials containing asbestos remain intact and are not damaged, there is no immediate risk.
So why worry? If you live in a house built or renovated AFTER 2000 you don’t have to. But if the build or refurbishment was prior to this time, there is a very good chance that materials containing asbestos are in your home. If the house is in a state of good repair you’re alright (for now), but problems can rear their heads as soon as work starts on the structure – and a big danger is that those who do the work may not realize the dangers they are being exposed to. This can affect workers as well as occupants of the house.
It is also alarming to find that you might find asbestos just about anywhere in a house built in the second half of the 20th century.
- Loose fill asbestos, the fluffy insulation material that was stuffed into cavity walls, used as insulation under wooden floorboards, and the material of choice for unused loft spaces, was very common. In fact this is probably the worst offender because it is easily disturbed (just knock a hole in a wall to hang a picture) and before you know it you have unknowingly released large quantities of asbestos fiber into the air. And the pollution will continue…
- Asbestos was an extremely common ingredient in lagging and insulation materials. This one is also bad because it is easily disturbed and so fibers quickly find their way into the air that we breathe.
- Asbestos-cement products included roofing, wall cladding, downpipes and gutters and chimney flues were also very common.
- Asbestos Insulating Board was commonly used to fireproof homes, and was also often used to partition rooms, for ceiling tiles, for soffits, and for panels underneath windows.
- Textured coatings used to produce a number of decorative finishes on both walls and ceilings had asbestos added to them. To make matters worse, these were often applied over board that contained asbestos, delivering a double whammy.
- Floor tiles – sometimes called vinyl – often contained asbestos, and even if your home is carpeted now, they could still be lurking underneath.
- Textile materials used in fuse boxes also commonly contained asbestos.
- Asbestos was often used as part of the plastic materials used to make bath panels, cisterns for toilets and toilet seats, and even for so-called vinyl window sills of that era.
- A type of asbestos “paper” was also used within metal cladding as well as under some types of tiles.
- Many coatings that have been sprayed onto the sides of buildings or on the underside of roofs also often contained asbestos (so the surfaces still do). So too did the spray that was used as a form of fire protection on the underside of concrete and reinforced concrete floors, and on both steel and reinforced concrete columns and beams.
Leave it all alone, and as long as these materials don’t start to deteriorate and fall apart, and you will probably be safe. But if they do deteriorate, or you decide to rip them out, that’s when the big problems can start.
If you don’t know much about asbestos, you’re probably thinking this is all big talk hogwash! But when you find out that the UK Government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) department has an active Hidden Killer Campaign that draws attention to the dangers of asbestos in our homes, you might reconsider your stance.
Asbestos is acknowledged to be the single greatest cause of work-related deaths in the UK. At the same time the HSE focuses on health and safety in the UK workplace. But they KNOW ordinary folk are also at risk at home.
Removing Asbestos from Your Home
When they realize the dangers, most people will immediately want to remove asbestos from their homes. Just be aware of the fact that when asbestos materials are removed, they will probably release harmful fibers into the air. So two factors come into play:
- Removal of materials that are not causing a potential hazard can instantly become hazardous. In this case it might be wise to rather leave them be; but you should get professional advice before making a decision.
- If hazardous asbestos is to be removed, hire a licensed contractor to do the work.
Removing asbestos is generally a high-risk job and one that ordinary home owners should never attempt. In the UK it is the HSE that licenses professionals.
Before you take any action, ascertain how the dangers of asbestos in the home relate to you and your home. And remember that if you’ve been living or working in an environment that has exposed you to the dangers of asbestos, and you have become sick as a result, you can take legal action and get compensation if you use the services of a reputable legal company.