Asbestos containing materials: Should they be eradicated or left in place?

Asbestos containing materials

Asbestos in residential and non-domestic buildings has been a major health concern for many decades, and questions have been asked as to why asbestos containing materials (ACMs) cannot be removed en masse.

Asbestos was widely used in the construction industry until its UK ban in 1999, with asbestos containing materials providing insulation and protection from fire, but they left a legacy of life-threatening illness for many who were exposed to the fibres and dust.

The long latency period of asbestos disease means symptoms don’t typically manifest until several decades after the initial exposure. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures show 2,595 deaths occurred from asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma, in 2016¹ with figures not expected to decline until the end of the decade.

So how is the issue of asbestos currently dealt with in this country?

Asbestos containing materials in the UK – what is the official policy?

Current government policy is to leave asbestos in place as long as the materials encasing it are not degrading or damaged, as opposed to removing it completely from a building. This strategy has invited criticism from various quarters, however, particularly from those campaigning for action to be taken in relation to the high levels of asbestos in schools.

At face value, eradicating asbestos appears to be the natural solution to a dangerous problem. A national strategy of asbestos eradication would remove the ongoing risk of exposure that we currently face, but there are other aspects that would need evaluation.

Managing asbestos vs removing it

Here are just a few issues to consider about removing asbestos containing materials:

  • The need to close down buildings whilst asbestos removal takes place

Hospital ward closures would pose a particularly difficult logistical problem to solve given the current wait for beds in many hospitals.

  • Asbestos containing materials may form part of the structure of a building

In this case, removal may not be possible without demolishing all or part of the building.

  • Asbestos removal can be a costly process

A national eradication programme would be costly – this issue should also be measured against the current risk and the long-term health cost of leaving asbestos in place, however.

  • The risk of exposure for asbestos contractors

Accidents happen, and with a wide scale programme of asbestos removal, the risk of exposure is increased, particularly for the contractors involved but also for those working or living nearby.

  • A low level of asbestos fibres and dust would remain for a while

After asbestos containing materials have been removed low levels of dust and fibres can remain for several months, causing potential harm or preventing use of the building during this time.

Clearly, there isn’t a straightforward or easy answer to the asbestos problem. Asbestos containing materials can be found in so many areas within our older buildings, posing varying degrees of risk.

If you would like more information on dealing with asbestos, our highly experienced consultants can help. Acorn Analytical Services is a well-established and reliable consultancy offering a range of services including asbestos surveys, asbestos testing, repair and encapsulation of asbestos containing materials, and project management. Please contact one of our expert team to find out more.

Neil Munro

I work in a dual role at Acorn Analytical Services focused primarily on growing and leading the business from our Northampton office base. My focus is on overseeing all sales, marketing and financial activities from Northampton. I assist clients with high-level asbestos management strategies and training. Together with Ian Stone I host our weekly podcast – Asbestos Knowledge Empire and I'm Co-author of Asbestos The Dark Arts and Fear and Loathing of Health and Safety.

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