Asbestos was widely used in the UK building industry through most of the last century. It was only during the 1980s that it started to become blacklisted and it was still being used, mixed with cement, through till 1999. It was used in all kinds of places: Artex was 2% asbestos until 1984, asbestos-cement roofing sheets, inside airing cupboards and around stoves and boilers, pipe lagging, ironing boards, night storage radiators, fire doors, artificial slates, wall boards. One of the most dangerous formats was a board made by Cape called Astbestolux, later replaced by an asbestos-free version called Supalux. There is a lot of asbestos about and if you get involved with demolition or renovation of an old building, you need to know how to handle the risk.
There are some fairly exacting requirements in place for commercial enterprises, including builders and demolition contractors. Every commercial building is now meant to have an Asbestos Register detailing if and where asbestos is located. But the situation with private householders is still largely unregulated, which means that if you have asbestos in your house you can more or less dispose of it as you wish. Except you can’t just take it to any old tip, but to one designated to take hazardous waste.
Whether this is a sensible idea is open to doubt. There is a big debate in asbestos circles about the exact nature of the risk involved. Everybody agrees that the really dangerous forms are brown and blue asbestos but white asbestos, which is the commonest one you are likely to come across, is less of a risk, especially when bound with cement. You have to breathe the dust to be at any danger at all, so an inert sheet of asbestos cement is not a significant risk, anymore than say an unopened packet of cigarettes.
There is a lot of confusion and fuzziness here. Caused in no little part by the activities of John Bridle and his Asbestos Watchdog business, which makes a living rubbishing mainstream asbestos claims. Bridle is of the opinion that there is an Asbestos Scare Industry out there which is all set rob us all blind by first finding asbestos where it isn’t and then charging us exorbitant amounts of money to remove it. Maybe Bridle is right, maybe he isn’t, but he has powerful friends in the media and gets a lot of exposure, mainly in the Sunday Telegraph.
The asbestos contractor I was speaking to wished, ruefully, that he made as much money as Bridle suggested he did. Just to stay in business as a licensed contractor, he has to pay £30,000 in insurance premiums every year for a business that turns over just under half a million. He said he thought it was quite possible that Bridle is right about white asbestos not being dangerous but he still had to remove it as if it was because he wouldn’t be allowed to practice otherwise. And there is also the distinct possibility that Bridle is wrong: lots of eminent scientists think white asbestos could well be harmful. If so, why take an unnecessary risk?
But the question which concerns me here is what exactly do you do when you are dismantling an old building and you want to know if any asbestos is present. I think it’s probably not a bad idea to have an asbestos survey at the outset. These cost anywhere between £100 and £500, depending on the size and complexity of the survey. The surveyor will most likely take a few samples which cost a further £10 or so each to analyse. My bill for vetting the 60s house we have just purchased was £111 inc VAT and including five samples. A good surveyor will then advise you of both the risks and the most appropriate way of handling them. As a commercial contractor, you are bound by law to dispose of asbestos in an appropriate manner but there is much less regulation placed on private householders. My local council, South Cambs, offers sealable sacks to householders to place their own asbestos remains in and there is one tip in the county you can take it all to, for which there is no additional charge. I guess they have to consider the alternative: fly tipping.
You can search for asbestos surveyors and contractors by county on the website of the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association.