What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a natural mineral made up of small, thin fibres; it cannot be seen, smelled or tasted. The fibres are soft and flexible yet resistant to heat, electricity and chemical interference. Asbestos is an insulator and as a result it was used widely in building and plumbing throughout the last number of decades. Its use is now banned in 55 countries (EU wide ban) but interestingly it is not banned in the USA but its use is heavily restricted.
Vintage Asbestos Advertising

Vintage Asbestos Advertising

Why is Asbestos Dangerous?

Asbestos is dangerous as it can cause lung related diseases; symptoms are not immediate so often people aren’t aware of it being an issue until anything from 20-50 years after the initial exposure. If asbestos remains intact within a building, it poses a low to minimal risk. The issue arises when the material is disturbed and tiny fibres/dust are released into the air meaning that people could breathe in the fibres thereby possibly damaging their lungs. This lung damage manifests itself in inflammation, scarring and eventually overall genetic damage to the body’s cells. There is unfortunately, no known way to reverse the damage that asbestos exposure can cause to these cells.

Asbestos-related diseases include:

  • Asbestosis (a chronic disease resulting in lung scarring)
  • Pleuritis (inflammation of the sheet-like layers that cover the lungs – the pleura)
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD – this is a common lung disease; sufferers would experience breathing difficulties. There are two main forms of COPD:
    1. Chronic Bronchitis, which manifests itself with a long-term mucus cough. 2. Emphysema, which damages the lungs over time.)

Asbestos also causes malignant diseases including:

  • Lung cancer
  • Pleural mesothelioma & peritoneal mesothelioma

Asbestos related cancers are the No. 1 cause of occupational cancer in the world. This means that the below occupations were/are most at risk.

  • Carpenters
  • Plumbers
  • Electricians
  • Asbestos miners
  • Painters
  • Builders
  • Shipbuilding, railway engineering and factory workers that have worked with asbestos products will also have a higher risk.

Obviously the risk isn’t as high as previous times because of the enforced restrictions on the use of asbestos but there are of course properties that still have asbestos in their structures. Secondary exposure is a risk also so if someone has lived with a worker who was exposed to asbestos the airborne dust could have been carried on clothing for example.


Selling or Buying a Property with Asbestos

Up until 1999, asbestos-containing-materials, also known as “ACMs” (eg roof slates, roof felts, soffit boards, window panels, window boards, garage ceilings, internal wall panels and more) were commonly used in Irish construction. A helpful list of exactly where asbestos could be contained in Irish homes is here. At the peak of asbestos production and use, many residential buildings built from 1945 and 1990 contained the material in some form so if you own a property that was built prior to 1999 or are interested in buying an older property, it’s definitely something that you need to have on your radar.

As outlined already, asbestos can exist in a building and not impact on any of the occupants as long as it remains undisturbed. The issue arises if for example, asbestos is used as a ceiling joist insulator and some work such as drilling is done thus causing asbestos fibres to be roused into the air. This exposure gives the potential for inhalation where the risk is. So while the existence of asbestos doesn’t mean that occupants are in danger, it can unfortunately have a devaluing impact on a property for potential buyers. That leads to the question for a property owner who might be planning to sell as to what to do; should they have the asbestos removed or simply do nothing? The issue with doing nothing is that the existence of asbestos will be likely be found by any competent building surveyor which might scupper a potential sale of the property.

Whether you’re a seller or a possible buyer of a property, if there potentially is asbestos, firstly determine its location, its risk factor and the resultant possible cost of removal to make the property safe. If the costs of removal of a particular area of asbestos are low, as the property seller, it might be worth getting that done in advance to remove the possible devaluation impact. One should be aware though that substantial amounts of asbestos can result in high removal costs so establishing the facts at the outset is a must. There are many specialist companies who do this removal work so a quick Google search will provide many options. Obviously seek out their experience and look for testimonials.

How is Asbestos Removed?

Removal of asbestos should never be attempted by an untrained individual. It is a potentially dangerous procedure and should be undertaken only by a experienced contractor or surveyor. Furthermore, it can be difficult to detect to an untrained eye so if in doubt about its existence, seek professional advice. In Ireland, there are major fines enforced by the Health & Safety Authority (HSA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in relation to asbestos disposal. Guidance is given here from the HSA on asbestos removal.