asbestosThere’s no need to panic – if it’s not broken up it’s completely safe.

The history of construction contains many examples of materials which were once thought to be the ‘next big thing’ but were later found to be damaging to health. Lead paint, timber treatment chemicals, solvents, adhesives, even humble MDF — they have all been claimed to pose a potential risk. The most notorious, however, is asbestos‚ which was used widely as a fireproof building and insulation material but is now known to cause respiratory illness and cancer.

What concerns people taking on projects in old homes where this might be a problem, of course, is how to recognise asbestos and deal with it. And also the potential high costs of having asbestos products professionally removed. The safest way of looking at the situation is that any home built before the 1980s has the potential to harbour at least some asbestos-containing materials. Artex, for example, was still being manufactured with asbestos up until 1984. Asbestos-cement roofing sheets, gas flues, rainwater pipes and cold-water cisterns were also being widely installed up until around that time. Before homeowners start to panic, though, it must be remembered that most of these products were made with Chrysotile (white asbestos), which is regarded as the least dangerous of the varieties. Moreover, asbestos-cement panels, water tanks and the like were made mostly of cement — the asbestos fibres were used to strengthen and reinforce this otherwise brittle material. A typical asbestos-cement roofing sheet, for example, will be around 10 per cent asbestos and 90 per cent cement. Since the cement binds the asbestos into a solid material, and as long as the material is not damaged, there is little or no danger of the fibres being released into the air, and thence finding their way into occupants’ lungs.

There is no statutory requirement for asbestos-cement products to be removed, and the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) advice is that as long as the product is in good condition, it is usually safer to leave it undisturbed and in place, rather than risk releasing fibres into the air by removing it. The HSE website (hse.gov.uk/asbestos) is a mine of information and publishes free downloadable advice sheets on all aspects of asbestos removal. When dealing with asbestos-cement roofing, for example, HSE’s advice is to consider leaving the material in place and either covering it over or sealing it. That same advice applies to textured coatings. The coating can be left in place and skimmed over with ordinary multi-finish plaster, or a special coating called Artex Ceiling Finish.

For small quantities of asbestos-cement sheeting, such as a garden shed or lean-to roof, some local authorities operate a free collection service for the bagged-up material. Before you do anything, however, do visit hse.gov.uk/asbestos and acquaint yourself with the advice and legislation. You will see that the rules are different for homeowners and contractors.