We're always talking about DIY and renovating. How to make a home better, how to rip out walls, pull of tiles, smash up a kitchen, tear up the floor - you get the picture. But what often doesn't get talked about are the dangers behind a renovation. There's many, but the most hidden and potentially dangerous of them all, is Asbestos. It's a word you've probably heard of, but do you know what it is? What it does? What it looks like? Where you can find it? Well, if you're renovating a house - you really need to know this stuff.
What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a material that was used in the building sector for many many years. A whole 50+ in fact. Back in the day, it was regarded as a new-found amazing material and the dangers behind it were completely unknown. It's resilient, durable, has great insulating properties and it's fire-resistant too - it was the perfect building material. Years passed and people who had been working with asbestos started developing health problems, and only then was the discovery made at how dangerous this stuff really is. Asbestos is a material that once broken, releases fibres into the air. Tiny tiny fibres that cannot be seen with the naked eye - but they're sharp and in-bed themselves into your lungs once breathed in. They cannot be removed and they will sit there, forever. In small quantities, this is little threat - but in larger amounts (although exact measurements are unknown!) eventually these fibres can cause problems like mesothelioma (a type of cancer) and asbestosis (scarring of the lungs, causing problems breathing). Essentially and sadly all asbestos-related illnesses are currently incurable and most are fatal.
Asbestos is still currently the UK's biggest workplace killer, since it's tradespeople on building sites every day who are most at risk. But of course, if you're a DIYer or renovating, you're also at risk. Thousands people each year die from Asbestos-related illnesses and as such, it's so freaking important, as renovators we know about it. Where to look for it, the dangers of it, and how to handle it.
Does Your Home Have Asbestos?
In short, most probably. It wasn't mentioned by a surveyor when you bought the house? That does not mean your house is asbestos free. In fact, I'd say it's more reason for concern. Asbestos can be hiding far beneath the depths of a room than what a surveyor can see on his hour-long investigation. Any home that was built before 2000 may contain asbestos - that's a freaking lot of homes and one statistic I read suggested that around 2 in 4 houses in the UK still have asbestos in them. Unless you have guarantees your home is asbestos-free, I would treat any home as if it may have some lurking somewhere within it, especially if your home hasn't been renovated in recent years.
What Does Asbestos Look Like?
My grandparents had an asbestos roof on their garage, so for that reason I always thought of asbestos being a grey corrugated sheet. It is in fact, much more than that. And put simply, it does not look like one single thing - in fact, it has a whole range of disguises, which makes it all the more tricky to identify. Lots of materials "look like" asbestos and whilst there are many materials that look like it, they may not actually be it. So whatever pre-conceptions you might have of how asbestos "looks" - you may have been misled. Asbestos cannot be identified by naked eye alone, so it's more important to know how it was used and where you're likely to find it within the home, than how it "looks". That being said, here are some photos of asbestos found around the home.
Where Can You Find Asbestos in the Home?
As I said previously, asbestos is great for insulation and a great material for fire-resistance. This is already giving us some clues to its use, but here's a run down of all the places you may find asbestos within in the home. This list is not limited, and do please bare in mind - much like timber or MDF, DIYers in the past may have used it for a whole range of other uses not mentioned.
On the Roof - This can often be found in two forms - corrugated sheets and roof tiles often used over garages and sheds.
In the loft - Asbestos was used a loose insulation and usually looks like fluffy cotton wool in this state. This is the WORST kind of asbestos.
Around Pipes - It was also used as insulating lagging around pipes
On the Bath - Old bath panels can be made from asbestos
On the Floor - Old vinyl floor tiles may be made from asbestos
On the Ceiling - Ceiling tiles may be made from asbestos and it was also often used in artex as well.
On the Outside - Gutters and rainwater pipes may be made from asbestos.
Partition Walls of Sheds/Garages - Asbestos also comes in the form of cement board and may be used in walls of garages and sheds. (we had this kind, which you can see here)
Behind Fireplaces - Asbestos insulation board can be found behind fireplaces
Behind Fuseboards - Insulation board may also be found behind a fuse box
Behind Boilers - Or even behind boilers.
Water Tanks - old water tanks may even be made from it.
As you can see, it can be anywhere and everywhere! It's so important to be aware of where you may come across it, as essentially this alone is the awareness you need to be able to stop and think... Is it asbestos?
What Should You Do if You think You've Found Asbestos?
Don't panic and don't move the damn thing! Asbestos is only a cause for concern when it's disturbed. So if you have a garage roof made from the stuff, that's fine. As long as it's not breaking apart, there's no need to worry. It can stay there for years and years and you'll be absolutely fine. Asbestos in its solid form, is not any cause for concern, it's releasing fibres you need to worry about.
If you think you've damaged some asbestos during a renovation, don't panic either. It certainly doesn't mean you're going to drop dead. Most people who have experienced health problems from asbestos exposure have done so through a pro-longed exposure, so chances are - you're absolutely fine. And don't forget, it takes years and years for any problems to develop (we're talking usually a minimum of 25!), so don't let it torture you either!