Asbestos roofs and other products

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I am alarmed to see the number of garages being offered for sale still with their asbestos roofs, and as the Quality Manager of an asbestos surveying company, the misconceptions about asbestos and what is or is not safe. 

Trading in any form of asbestos (which includes sale, swap or giving away) is now banned - and the penalties are very severe.  The only way that asbestos of any type can be disposed of is to an official asbestos disposal point of which your local council will be able to give you details. 

The rule now is that NO asbestos is safe.  If you are going to be affected by asbestos, blue and brown forms they will get you quicker than the white forms; and precisely who or when people will be affected by exposure to asbestos is uncertain.  There is a high probability that exposure to quantities of blue and brown asbestos will cause health problems sooner rather than later.  However white asbestos appears to have not quite such an effect (though there is still much risk) and many people show no problems from exposure even many years later.  In the seventies I helped cut up asbestos cement sheets in the open air (which reduced the effective concentration), using a circular saw and was covered in asbestos cement dust.  I am still alive to tell the tale and have suffered no problems ......... however there are people who have been exposed in a similar way and are now six feet under.  I look back at what I did with horror!

The ban come into effect at the end of the 1990s.  I am being vague because some manufacturers used alternatives fibres with the cement before the ban started, and others unofficially continued afterwards until their stock of asbestos product was used up.  My advice is that if pre 2000 assume asbestos or get it tested (see note at the bottom).

The good thing is that you do not need to pay someone with an official asbestos carriers licence to move asbestos cement products ( this does not apply to soft asbestos cement materials such as wall boarding and pipe lagging which are strictly controlled).  Where products such as panels (flat, corrugated or box profile), ridges or soffits, or chimney flues etc, are made of asbestos cement the asbestos content is well bound within the structure of the cement and unless it is broken or fraying are comparatively safe.  If you contact your local authority you will find that many have special arrangements for free disposal of asbestos cement products in a domestic situation .... sorry, if it is trade you have to pay an arm and a leg for disposal!  Basically the rule is that the owner of the asbestos has to move the material themselves from the site where it is present to the approved disposal point - which often has to be pre-booked.  Again contact your local authority for details.  Here in Gloucestershire I was able to dispose of the complete roof of a 20ft x 10 ft garage with no problems, but recently I heard of someone from another authority who could only dispose of the first 6 sheets free and then the rest at £20 each (a rip off).

When handling asbestos cement products:
1.    Damp them thoroughly first - this help to prevent the dispersal of the asbestos fibres. 
2.    If you can, wrap them up with plastic (double wrap with bin liners should be adequate) and seal with tape.  This can be left on the material when put into the skip or other disposal point. 
3.    Handle in the open air and wear a face mask. 
4.    Use gloves and cheap (paper) overalls (or old ones that can be thrown away), which should be disposed of into the asbestos waste point along with the mask and any contaminated ordinary clothing ... don't expect the wife to wash them because in the past wives of asbestos workers got asbestosis from washing their husbands (albeit heavily) contaminated clothes! 
5.    Do not cut into the asbestos if the fixings are rusted - cut the bolts or grind off the heads or the nuts. 
6.    If you have got yourself a little dusty (on hands/face etc) don't worry - it would be mainly cement dust with only the odd asbestos fibre which should cause no harm.  If you have wet wipes available use these to clean off the dust and dispose of with the panels, or shower when you get home using plenty of water.
7.    If it is on the trailer (recommended) or van that moved the material that is contaminated, and is the reason for wrapping up the sheets, wipe the contaminated/dusty area with wet wipes and dispose of with the panels.  If hosing off the trailer or van you could get in to trouble because you should not flush asbestos down drains, however in practice the amount of contamination would be so miniscule it should not be a risk ..... but be warned!  In my opinion this caution should not apply to showering because it is a health issue and contamination should be minimal - but this is just a personal opinion.
8.   Be very careful about the use of vacuum cleaners because you could inadvertently contaminate you household vacuum cleaner.  The vacuuming process would have the effect of concentrating asbestos fibres in the cleaner.  Use brushes and dispose of as asbestos waste.

Finally, if you have a building with an asbestos cement roof (or it appears to be one) and are worried about it. 
  • If domestic (garage/shed etc) and sound then leave it alone - it is not necessary to remove.  However be aware that in the event of a fire the fire brigade will usually let it burn itself out (to avoid contaminating themselves and equipment) unless life is at risk.  You may also have the cost of decontaminating where there is any fallout (your land and neighbours).
  • ANY commercial building of any type (barns, wharehouses, office blocks, shops, flats, rented rooms, etc etc) should BY LAW have been surveyed for asbestos by now and an asbestos register created - see the HSE website.  It should have been done years ago!
  • If unsure whether a material is asbestos it is not expensive to have it analysed - rarely more that £10 (2007).  Check yellow pages/HSE website for labs who can do it and take their advice as to how to sample and send to them.
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