Despite the fact that the use and importation of all type of asbestos was banned in the United Kingdom in 1999, there are still thousands of tonnes of asbestos situated in residential properties around the country. At present, legislation does not require homeowners to remove existing asbestos-products from domestic properties. Many homeowners do not even realise that there are asbestos-
containing building materials in their homes. Nonetheless, thousands of people are still diagnosed with asbestos-related illnesses every year. Taking steps to reduce the risks from existing asbestos should help to reduce instances of asbestos-related illnesses, however this will be very difficult to achieve, because asbestos is still prevalent in the UK.
Asbestos-containing products were a staple of the British building trade for decades, because asbestos was considered to be a miracle product. It could be processed in a number of different ways in order to create a large number of highly functional building products. The malleability of asbestos meant that it could be fashioned into many different forms.
On a chemical level, asbestos is inert, meaning that it will react with very few other chemicals. This meant that it could be used for products such as battery acid storage tanks. The chemical inertia also meant that it was less susceptible to chemical corrosions over time. It is not soluble in water or most other organic solvents, meaning that it was perfect for use in areas that might get wet. On a physical level, asbestos offers great thermal insulation properties, so it could be used
to insulate piping or roofing. It does not conduct electricity. Asbestos-containing substances tend to be non-flammable and heat-resistant so they could help to reduce the fire risk in a building. In general, asbestos-containing products were designed to be strong and durable. However, all of these positive qualities also meant that asbestos was dangerous to human health.
When asbestos fibres are breathed in, they do not take degrade or pass through the system easily. The tough fibres get lodged in the soft tissue of the respiratory system and cause damage by repeatedly scratching the lining of the lungs. Over time, this leads to serious damage to the respiratory system. Once the threat from asbestos was recognised, the British government took steps to restrict its use. However, the asbestos ban was ultimately introduced far later than bans in some other countries.
Because asbestos was so widely used, it would be difficult to enforce legislation that required the immediate removal of all asbestos products. These products were installed for a reason and would therefore need to be replaced with a suitable alternative if the asbestos were to be removed.
Many homeowners would struggle to replace these materials right away if they were forced to remove all asbestos-containing products in their home. This could leave some homes in an unsafe state. What is more, asbestos is only dangerous when the fibres become airborne. Many types of asbestos are completely enclosed so long as the asbestos-containing materials remain undamaged. This means that the fibres cannot become airborne and therefore cannot be inhaled in large enough quantities to pose a threat. These products are considered to be safe as long as they do not start to crack, crumble or degrade.
The Health and Safety Executive in the United Kingdom actually recommends that undamaged products are left in situ unless the homeowner needs to remove them for any reason. Removing undamaged asbestos poses its own risks, because the asbestos-
containing products could be damaged during the removal process. This may lead to asbestos fibres being spread throughout the home. When asbestos-containing products are left in situ, it is recommended that the homeowner continues to monitor the product. Any cracks or damages that occur to the material should be reported to an asbestos specialist. The specialist will then be able to take steps to reduce the risk.
The risk from low-level damage can actually be reduced by using encapsulation techniques. Encapsulation attempts to seal the products so that asbestos fibres are less likely to become airborne. This allows the products to remain in place until they need to be removed. Encapsulation is not possible on all asbestos products and should always be done by a licensed asbestos contractor.
In the cases where asbestos products do need to be removed, the process can be quite slow. Risk assessments and surveys may need to be done before the work is carried out, especially if large amounts of asbestos need to be removed. The waste must be disposed of in special landfill sites using formal hazardous waste labels. The process can be quite costly and some homeowners are reluctant to enter into it, even though it is designed to protect their health.