You are here: Understanding Asbestos Containing Materials


Most people know that asbestos and asbestos containing materials (ACMs) can be dangerous. But the type of ACM, its location and condition make a great deal of difference to the risk and hence the urgency of taking remedial action or removal.
In this item Steve Shutler will explain how to assess the risk from asbestos, available options and legal requirements.

Types of Asbestos

There are 6 types of asbestos but only 3 have been widely used in building materials:
White (Chrysotile)
Brown (Amosite)
Blue (Crocidolite)
All are naturally occurring fibrous silicates that were mined for their extremely useful properties – incombustibility, heat resistance, strength, flexibility etc.
Strictly speaking blue is the most dangerous, followed by brown and then white. However the material with which the asbestos was mixed is an important risk factor. If the fibres are well bonded the material is lower risk as fibres are less likely to be released and to become airborne. With high risk materials even minor disturbance can release significant quantities of fibres.
The first prohibition of use in the UK was in 1985 but some use of some ACMs were not finally prohibited until November 1999. It is estimated that over 1 million workplace buildings contain asbestos materials. The number of domestic premises containing these materials is more difficult to determine but must be many millions.

Health Risks

Asbestos is harmful when the fine airborne fibres are breathed in. Because the fibres split lengthways to the point where they are microscopic they are able to get past the body’s natural defences. Once in the lung the fibres cannot be removed or broken down by the body. They remain in the lung tissue where they cause three principal diseases: Asbestosis, Lung Cancer and Mesothelioma, which is a cancer of the tissue around the lung. Unlike many diseases it may take years for the conditions to develop after exposure to asbestos. These diseases are usually fatal and Mesothelioma invariably so.
Each year the Health and Safety Executive estimates that 3,500 to 4,000 people die from asbestos related diseases – more than die in road traffic accidents.
There is no safe level of exposure but the more that is breathed in the greater is the potential risk. It is not generally thought that a single short exposure will lead to asbestos disease later in life.

Asbestos Materials

Generally the order of risk from ACMs (asbestos containing materials) is as Follows:
Very High Risk
Loose asbestos fill
Sprayed asbestos coatings used for structural fire protection or for acoustic purposes
Asbestos insulation (lagging) on boilers, cylinders and pipes
Asbestos Insulating Board – often called “Asbestolux”
Asbestos Cement
Lower Risk
There are many other asbestos containing materials (ACMs) such as earlier thermoplastic floor tiles, gaskets, “Artex” decorative plaster, asbestos string etc. The Health and Safety Executive web site¹ provides useful further information however to identify all such materials a trained and experienced surveyor is highly recommended.

Asbestos Surveys

There are two types of survey:
Management Survey – as part of risk control in occupied buildings (previously called a “Type 1” or “Type 2 Survey”)
Demolition/Refurbishment Survey – prior to work so the asbestos can first be safely removed (previously called a “Type 3 Survey”). This survey is destructive as even hidden ACMs must be identified.
It is important to remember that an Asbestos Management Survey will not provide a list of all ACMs – just those which present a risk to people in the building during normal occupancy. If building or demolition is planned a fully intrusive survey will be needed. Again a competent asbestos survey will provide further advice.

What If Your Building Contains Asbestos?

The fact that ACMs may be present in your building is not necessarily an immediate problem. If they are in good condition (sealed) and are not likely to be disturbed than they can safely be left in position. They must however be protected from damage and contractors must be informed so that they do not accidentally disturb them during maintenance.
Asbestos can however have implications for the value of a building. They can also discourage prospective buyers.
Asbestos can be removed or encapsulated – sealed with a resistant coating. Most asbestos materials can only be removed by specialist contractors who hold an HSE Asbestos Licence. Removal is usually expensive and time consuming. The work area will have to be completely sealed off with a polythene tent, the contractor will have to provide a purpose built mobile shower facility and the men will need to wear full protective clothing and respirators during work. It is a legal requirement that the Health and Safety Authorities are notified at least 14 days before work starts so that they can inspect the site and confirm that the contractor is taking all of the necessary precautions. Upon completion a “Certificate of Re-Occupation” must be produced by a UKAS accredited laboratory. The HSE website¹ contains a full list of licensed asbestos contractors.
Less hazardous ACMs can be removed by non licensed contractor BUT they must be trained for the work and have the necessary asbestos insurances.
All asbestos waste is classified as hazardous and can only be disposed off at a licensed site. This further adds to the costs.

Legal Aspects

The legal implications resulting from asbestos materials vary depending if the premises is commercial or domestic.
In private houses and flats the law is less onerous. If the home is owner-occupied very little law applies – if the owner wishes to live with damaged and dangerous asbestos then he may do so! The situation is different in rented homes where the landlord is under a statutory duty to protect his tenants.
Significant duties apply to employers and commercial property owners. The law (The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006) stipulates that asbestos must be identified, the risks must be formally assessed and a written Asbestos Management Plan formulated. It is important to note that the requirement to produce a Management Plan also applies to the common parts of multi-occupied domestic premises such as flats and sheltered housing. The Health and Safety Authorities frequently take prosecutions when these requirements are disregarded.
When properties are sold it is now usual to ask questions regarding the presence of ACMs and failure to disclose information can leave the vendor open to claims for compensation.


Asbestos and asbestos containing materials have the potential to cause serious or fatal diseases. They can also have a significant implication on the value of a building, cause sales to fall through and in the case of commercial premises can leave the owner or employer in Court. Identification of ACMs part way through refurbishments also has the potential to cause delays and cost escalation.
Some unscrupulous contractors and so called “asbestos consultants” can however use the concerns surrounding asbestos to carry out unnecessary asbestos removal. Similarly the presence or even the suspicion that asbestos may be present can unnecessarily devalue a property. Therefore as with other aspects of building maintenance and valuation it pays to obtain impartial advice from an independent expert.

Steve Shutler can be contacted on 01270 812 792 or via

If you are concerned about asbestos in your property, you may find some of these services useful: