30 October 2006

Property owner: check for asbestos

The notorious carcinogen has been recognised since the 70s, but asbestos still lurks in some older properties. And if you're the owner, you could find yourself legally liable.

Even if you’re not fussed about the health risks of asbestos (and you should be), you might want to know about the new legal ones.

Property owners’ legal responsibilities
All property owners in possession of property built before about 1980 need to consider the asbestos issue for legal as well as health reasons, says Graham Hartle, sales director for Asbestos Assessment Services (ASS).

According to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the owner of an industrial or commercial property is required to undertake an asbestos risk assessment every two years, and to maintain an asbestos register.

Hartle cautions that, should someone develop an asbestos-related disease after being in a building containing asbestos materials – even up to 40 years later – the owner will be liable, according to new provisions in the Act.

Even if you’re just renting out a bachelor flat to one person, that still counts as ‘commercial property’. However, says Hartle, in the case of small-scale renting, the decision to have an asbestos assessment done is left largely up to the owner.

"It’s not being enforced in the same way that big commercial concerns are, " says Hartle.

"But it’s not out of the question that you could run into legal problems. Let’s say you get a contractor in to work on your roof, which, unknown to you or him, contains asbestos. They cut the material, and breathe in some dust. Then, twenty years down the line, they could develop asbestosis and sue you."

Hartle says that, should you yourself develop an asbestos-related illness, perhaps as a result of living in a home containing the substance for many years, medical insurers may refuse to pay out if you have not had regular asbestos assessments and had asbestos-containing materials repaired or removed.

What is asbestos exactly?
Asbestos isn’t just one substance – it’s the name given to a group of minerals characterised by the long, thin fibres of which they are composed. Asbestos is found naturally in rocks and has been used for centuries.

At first asbestos seemed like a brilliant find: strong, chemically stable and a good heat insulator, it was perfect for many uses, like insulation and fire proofing, in a number of different industries.

Although the manufacture of asbestos-containing materials has been banned or is stringently controlled in most countries, some of the products from previous decades are still in use.

Why is asbestos harmful?
Asbestos is OK if it’s left in peace. If it’s just sitting quietly undisturbed somewhere in your home, it can’t hurt you.

But as soon as an asbestos-containing material gets damaged – broken by renovations, maybe, or even just worn down by use or the elements, it becomes dangerous. The tiny fibres of which asbestos is composed break away, become airborne, and, if inhaled, can cause serious disease.

The greater the level and duration of exposure, the higher your risk for the following serious conditions:

Asbestosis. This lung disease was first identified in naval shipyard workers. If asbestos fibres become trapped in the lung tissue, the body produces an acid to try to dissolve them. This doesn’t have much effect on the tough fibres, but it can scar the delicate surrounding lung tissue. Eventually the scarring may become so bad that the lungs cease to function.

Lung Cancer. Asbestos-associated lung cancer usually starts in the bronchi (the tubes into which the windpipe divides), but may also affect other parts of the lung. Smoking drastically increases the chance of developing lung cancer among asbestos exposed workers.

Mesothelioma. Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of this disease, a cancer that causes growths of the membrane lining the outside of the lungs and the chest cavity.

Other cancers have also been linked to asbestos, including those of the voice box, throat, kidney, oesophagus and gall bladder.

Asbestos exposure doesn’t cause immediate symptoms like head-aches or sore muscles. The chronic diseases mentioned here take a long time to develop (about 15 to 40 years). Sometimes, people who worked in asbestos mining or manufacturing only started to experience symptoms decades later in their retirement, and didn’t realise the cause.

How do you know if there’s asbestos in your environment?
You can’t tell if something contains asbestos simply by looking at it; to know for sure it needs to be professionally analysed. But don’t think of taking a sample to a lab yourself - if done incorrectly, sampling can be more hazardous than simply leaving the material be.

Most products made today don’t contain asbestos. Those few products made which still contain asbestos are required to be labelled as such. However, until the 1970s, asbestos-containing materials were used in many types of building products and insulation materials in homes, and houses built or renovated before 1980 may still have these. Products that could contain asbestos include:

  • Hot water and steam pipes. These may be insulated with an asbestos blanket or tape, or coated with an asbestos material.
  • Cement sheet, millboard and paper used as insulation on walls and floors around furnaces and woodburning stoves.
  • Door seals in furnaces, and fuel-burning stoves.
  • Some vinyl floor tiles and the backing on vinyl flooring and adhesives.
  • Soundproofing or decorative material sprayed on walls and ceilings.
  • In textured paint and in patching compounds used on wall and ceiling joints.
  • Asbestos cement roofing, shingles and siding.
  • Artificial ashes and embers in gas-fired fireplaces.
  • Older household products such as fireproof gloves, stove-top pads, ironing board covers and hairdryers.
  • Insulation material.

Asbestos was also previously used in some automobile parts e.g. in brake pads.

What to do if your home contains asbestos
If you suspect you have asbestos-containing materials on your property, the best course of action is to get the situation assessed by a professional company such as ASS. They can tell you if the material indeed contains asbestos, and if it needs to be repaired or removed (a rather more expensive option). The assessors can also refer you to a certified contractor to have the job done.

If the material is in good condition, it may be appropriate to simply leave it be, and have it checked at regular intervals in future.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Expert, Health24, October 2006

Information sources:
Centres for Disease Control
Environmental Protection Agency
Occupational Health and Safety Act

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