Much publicity has been given in recent years to the potential dangers of asbestos to the extent that the very mention of the word can conjure up unnecessary fear in the minds of many people.
Asbestos is a natural material that has served a useful purpose in the home and industry, often as fireproofing. It is only more recently that the dangers arising from its use have been identified. Certain fibres produced by asbestos can be very small and these can get deep within the lungs when breathed in. Over a long period of time (and depending upon how much was inhaled), this can lead to damage to the lung tissues and the possibility of disease, including cancer. Generally, the problem is caused when very high levels of fibres are breathed in and under normal circumstances; there is no need for undue concern.
The main point to remember though is that asbestos is a naturally occurring material and due to the length of time that it has been in use, there are many fibres present naturally in the air. This of course does not mean that the entire population is going to suffer from asbestos related diseases; it very much a matter of extent of exposure. The presence of asbestos materials in the home does not present any greater risk than normal provided that they are in sound condition. Even where materials are worn or damaged, the risk is only from very minute fibres, which may well only be present in small quantities.
There is no known danger associated with ingesting asbestos fibres arising from asbestos cement storage tanks or the rarely found water supply pipes.
Building materials containing asbestos were widely used from 1930 to around 1980, particularly from the 1960s onwards, so houses and flats built or refurbished at this time may contain asbestos materials. In domestic premises, these materials are usually in the form of asbestos cement which normally has low asbestos content and which was used for such items as cold water storage tanks, soffit boards and the commonly seen corrugated garage roofs. For further information on items which may contain asbestos please see HSE - Where can you find asbestos?
If these items are in good, sound condition; it is perfectly acceptable to leave them where they are.
It might even be worthwhile painting certain items to help prevent wear and to encapsulate the asbestos (but don't scrape or sand the asbestos material before painting).
The guiding rule therefore is not to disturb items containing asbestos unless absolutely necessary.
If it does become necessary to remove or work on these materials, then you must inform the builder who is going to carry out the work of their presence.
If you are considering doing the work yourself, then you should carry out basic precautions to reduce any risk:
For information on the disposal of asbestos please see Love Essex Asbestos Advice.