July 20, 2009

Asbestos in Buildings

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When undertaking maintenance, refurbishment or demolition works, to any extent, one of the most important considerations for any contractor or serial DIY’er is that of asbestos. Asbestos represents one of the primary occupational hazards relating to construction works and causes the deaths of thousands of people each year. The number of asbestos related illnesses and associated deaths is unfortunately only likely to rise too as more and more of this deadly material is uncovered during future construction works.

If you are about to begin work on a building, however minor, be it on your home or as part of your job, you must take the risk of encountering asbestos seriously. Although asbestos has been used in some form another for thousands of years its primary use in construction materials lasted around half a century up until the 1980’s when the health risks inherent with its use were realised. Due to its physical strength, resistance to chemicals, non-combustibility and excellent thermal and electrical insulation properties, asbestos fast became an integral part of many components, most commonly; insulation boards, pipe and boiler lagging and sprayed coatings, and therefore its presence is unfortunately common in houses built over this period.

The most common forms of asbestos are Chrysotile (white asbestos), Amosite (brown asbestos) and Crocidolite (blue asbestos) although brown and blue forms are said to be more hazardous it should be noted that these colours do not necessarily reflect their appearance.

Why, and to what extent, is asbestos harmful?

Asbestos only presents a health hazard where fibres are able to enter the Lungs and usually occurs usually as a result of fibres becoming airborne following disturbance. A number of lung related-diseases can result from even the smallest exposure to asbestos with the most common ones being Asbestosis, lung cancer and Mesothelioma. Essentially, problems occur when the ‘hook-like’ fibres embed themselves within the delicate tissues of the lungs either causing thickening and scarring of the tissue (Asbestosis) or malignant growths in the lining of the lung (Mesotheliama). Unfortunately, although disease is likely to develop anywhere from 15-50 years following exposure, this will almost certainly lead to death shortly after onset.

The risk associated with a specific element containing asbestos generally depends on its potential for fibre release, which in turn depends on: The type of material and its properties, the integrity of that material and condition of any enclosure or sealant (preventing its exposure) and its location. Low-density, high-fibre content materials generally present the most risk and may be found in materials such as sprayed coatings. High-density, low-fibre content materials such as asbestos cement are less hazardous, however, the condition of the material is also obviously critical to the risk it presents, with damage or aging likely to result in exposure of fibres.

What should I do if I think there may be asbestos present where I am working?

First and foremost, as the saying goes; it’s always better to be safe than sorry, so when undertaking any work where there is even the slightest risk of encountering asbestos, be it an inspection or otherwise, always wear an approved dust mask, or better still, use breathing apparatus until the true extent of the problem has been realised.

Secondly: Get the professionals in! Don’t try to deal with asbestos unless you are qualified and trained to do so. This is not a light issue and the risks above are unfortunately all too real.

Generally speaking, upon predicting or uncovering asbestos, a professional asbestos removal contractor or surveyor should immediately be brought in to undertake a survey. The procedure to identify and analyse the presence and risk of asbestos varies considerably in extent and complexity, largely dependant on the building, its location and occupation, and the information already known. Despite this, all surveys will include identification of possible locations, sampling of materials (usually by a laboratory), analysis and recording of results, and formulation of proposed action plan for dealing with the risk.

Two major factors contributing to the decision to remove the asbestos are the condition of the material and its location. If the asbestos is in a bad way and is located where it is likely to be disturbed in the future, either by occupants or by construction workers, it will almost certainly have to be removed. Of course, this is unlikely to please the client, as removal will undoubtedly result in extra costs and time delays. Therefore, it will be important to explain the situation and its associated risks to justify these costs. Do not allow your employer to pressure you into covering up the asbestos or working around it as this put both you and others in danger especially where its location has been further concealed.

Of course, if the material is in good condition and presents little chance of disturbance, the inspector may feel the asbestos can be sufficiently sealed and the risk can be managed. This will require careful documentation of the location and type of asbestos encountered and how its was remedied to inform those working in the area in the future of its presence. This material itself should also be labelled and regularly inspected for signs of deterioration or damage.

As it is not suggested that ANY unqualified person should undertake either inspection or removal of asbestos related materials, the specifics of its removal or enclosure will not be discussed here, however, such operations are likely to require notification of the relevant authority, air-tight enclosure of the work area, restricted access, safe and correct disposal of removed materials, thorough decontamination procedures and thorough inspection and air testing of the completed work area.

It goes without saying that, where asbestos is removed, it should be replaced with the appropriate material or component. Although asbestos proved to be a hugely misjudged development in construction technology, its properties did allow it to function effectively. As a result, care must be taken when selecting a suitable replacement.

Construction Chemicals UK Ltd provide a number of building materials suitable for such reworks, from cellar conversions to entire demolition and rebuilding. Visit our online shop to see our full range of products.

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