old building with asbestos roof

With widespread use all throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s Asbestos was seen by many in the building industry as a wonder material. It is extremely resistant to fire and heat, strong enough to beat out steel and won’t dissolve when in contact with water - everything you’d want when looking to protect your roof.

It was so popular in the 20th Century that it is estimated that as many as 50% of homes built in and before 1999 may still actually contain at least some trace amounts and it wasn’t until that year that the UK finally prohibited its import and use. This was because, as is common knowledge now, breathing in asbestos regularly was found to be a leading cause of many lung and pulmonary diseases.

That Asbestos is dangerous hasn’t been a disputable fact for over two decades, however there may still be some confusion about exactly how dangerous and, more importantly for those of you living in older houses, how to identify asbestos and whether or not it need be removed.

What is Asbestos?

The naturally occurring stone can be traced all the way back to Ancient Greece, with current accounts attributing its discovering to a student of Aristotle. However, the common misconception is that this was a discovery of only a single material. In the two and a half millennia or so since then, it has been mined extensively and further sub-categorized into six different types: Actinolite, Amosite, Anthophyllite, Crocidolite, Tremolite and the one we most commonly recognise Chrysotile. Also known as white asbestos.

What is Chrysotile?

This type of asbestos is markedly different from the rest, and the only belonging to the serpentine family of stone. Its composition is uniquely well suited to construction, being made of many layers of fibre which makes it far more pliable and versatile. Beyond just roof tiles and insulation, Chrysotile can also be found in asphalt, plastics, cement and all manner of textiles.

Its regular use has led to some debate, with many companies still mining and exporting it to this day (in places like Candan, Russia and Italy). Many of these companies claim that it is in fact safe when used in dense products as they are unlikely to fray and thus present limited risk of being inhaled. Though this has been disputed by health organisations around the world who still maintain that any kind of exposure can have lasting and damaging effects on our bodies.

Why is Asbestos Dangerous?

Make no mistake, prolonged exposure to asbestos can be as harmful as any poison. According to HSE (Health & Safety Executive), it is estimated that roughly 5000 worker deaths a year can be linked to asbestos, around 20 every single week. This is not a result of asbestos in general however, but rather a dire consequence of its damage.

Typically, asbestos roof tiles will be made using only 10-15% of actual Chrysolite with the rest being cement, to bind the mixture and give it a more robust structure. In this form, asbestos present virtually no risk as all of the harmful elements are held in place. It is only when the tiles begin to degrade that the asbestos fibres can be released into the air and freely ingested or inhaled.

Like heavy smoking, repeated exposure can eventually lead to Lung Cancer as well as a host of other conditions and diseases such as Pleural Thickening and Asbestosis. Both of which can lead to shortness of breath, discomfort in your chest and, in severe cases of Asbestos, even death. More than this, there is also a risk of Mesothelioma. This is a type of cancer tightly related to asbestos and is almost always fatal.

The most dangerous thing about asbestos exposure as the diseases it can cause however is how long they can take to develop. Often by the time they have been diagnosed there is little to be done which is why it is incredibly important to take steps to protect yourselves sooner rather than later.

What To Do If Your Building Has Asbestos Roof Tiles

If you are living or working in a building built pre-2000, there is a chance asbestos may be present. However, a great deal of care has been put into place to ensure that these risks are minimalized. In the case of a non-residential properties (shops, offices etc.) it is a legal requirement that an asbestos risk register be present with clear outlines on how much (if any) asbestos is in your in building and how it will be managed.

This is the responsibility of the building's owner or manager and should be inspected and updated every 6-12 months. As for our homes, there are a few key identifiers that we should all be on the lookout for.

Identifying Asbestos Roof Tiles

Whilst it is not always easy to tell normal tiles from those built using asbestos, there are some clues in their designs and colouration. As we’ve mentioned, post 2000 asbestos was banned and so any current asbestos tiles will very likely be a more faded red. It was also common for them to be laid in a unique looking diamond pattern. As for slate roofs, those made from asbestos cement have a tendency to shift over time from black to a paler grey or blue.

Sampling an Asbestos Roof

If your notice any of these indicators, the next step is to confirm the presence of an ACM (asbestos containing material). There are a couple of ways to do this, though unfortunately neither is particularly simple:

First, you can check the tiles yourself. Those with asbestos should have been marked by their manufacturer with a clear ‘AC’ on their underside and those without with an ‘NT.’ However, this is by no means a guarantee and so the better (and safer) option would be to arrange a test. This can be done by sending a single tile to your nearest asbestos testing lab or calling out for an official management survey. Either way this will give a much clearer indication of whether you will need start thinking of disposal.

Of course, whilst you wait for the results of this test, the best course of action is to keep well away from your roof and loft. If you absolutely must get into your attic, you should also take care to wear appropriate PPE. That means gloves and a mask at all times.

Disposing of Asbestos

Fortunately, or rather unfortunately, replacing an asbestos roof is not a terribly uncommon job. At least, it is something that most reputable and experienced removal companies should be able to handle. There is no legal restriction about getting rid of an asbestos roof on a DIY basis, though we would never recommend it. A professional, with the correct level of training, will be able to do a much better job at discerning the degree of risk and from there taking the appropriate action to ensure your home is safe for you and your family.