In the 20th century, it was seen as a wonder material for construction and industry: Asbestos. Soon, however, the health hazards became known and doubts were raised. It took a while for industry and politics to react, but by now, asbestos is a thing of the past in Europe.
If you discover asbestos in your own home, it should definitely be removed. Asbestos poses numerous health risks and even in small amounts can lead to chronic illness and pain. Although the risks of asbestos are now well known, there is still a lot of unawareness and misinformation among homeowners. This article aims to change that. Here you will learn everything you need to know about asbestos and its removal.
Photo – Harald Weber, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons
What is asbestos?
The word asbestos is an over-arching term and describes various naturally occurring, fibrous, crystallized silicate minerals. Asbestos was discovered and recorded in writing as early as ancient times. However, asbestos was only widely used in the course of industrialization in Europe and North America. Due to its technical properties, asbestos became widely popular in industry and construction. Asbestos fibres reached their zenith during the Second World War and in the post-war period.
Asbestos consists of fibres that are about 0.04 to 0.4 µm long in natural form, depending on the type of asbestos. After industrial processing, asbestos fibres reach a length of about 10 to 20 mm. The raw material was extracted in asbestos mines in the former Soviet Union, in the United States and in the British colonies in Africa and Asia, among other places.
Why is asbestos so dangerous?
The fact that asbestos is potentially hazardous to health was already suspected at the beginning of the 20th century. Patterns of chronic illness and unexplained causes of death were noticed in people who were regularly exposed to asbestos. However, operators of asbestos mines, asbestos processing factories and asbestos dealers tried to nip any possible doubts in the bud and sell asbestos as a miracle fibre.
Today, it is clear that asbestos can trigger or promote a whole range of health problems. Research has not yet been fully conclusive, but it is considered proven that asbestos is carcinogenic and can trigger lung cancer, tumours and various lung diseases, among other things. Moreover, asbestos itself cannot be broken down by the body and may accumulate in the body’s tissues for years. Thus, asbestos can still cause health problems decades after the last contact with the fibres. Smokers, children and people with pre-existing conditions are disproportionately at risk.
What does asbestos look like?
As asbestos has been used in many different shapes and colours, it is not always possible to see it with the bare eye. Asbestos is found, among other things, in the form of fibre cement, roof panels or insulation material and is often mixed with other materials. Nowadays, however, there are various technical applications that can be used to detect asbestos in the air, in products or in buildings.
In nature, asbestos occurs freely in the form of various silicate minerals. Its colour ranges from reddish to greyish to greenish or bluish and, to the untrained eye, it looks like ordinary rock at first glance. In its processed form, after industrial manufacturing, pure asbestos is greyish to greenish and has a fibrous structure, similar to pressed wool or felt.
Why was asbestos used?
Asbestos has numerous positive properties, which is why it was often called a miracle fibre in the past. In industry, asbestos was used in the production of bags, filters, fire-resistant materials, war supplies, toothpaste, tyres, baby powder, telephones, radios and so on.
Asbestos is elastic, tensile and from a chemical point of view it is suitable for incorporation into binders. In addition, asbestos can withstand heat of up to 1000 degrees Celsius and is therefore extremely fire-resistant. Furthermore, asbestos is available in abundance worldwide, easy to process and therefore very cheap compared to other building materials. The potential of asbestos was consequently seen as particularly great for the construction industry. The material was used in applications such as thermal insulation, pipes, fire protection, fibre cement, corrugated roof panels and more.
What is the legal situation of asbestos today?
It is undisputed that asbestos is dangerous. Considering this, asbestos is banned in most states in Europe. Exceptions are some Eastern and South-Eastern European countries that are not members of the European Union, such as Albania, Northern Macedonia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and Russia.
Below we provide an overview of the legal status of asbestos in the European Union, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and the rest of the world.
1. In the EU
To protect workers and residents, asbestos may no longer be used in the construction industry in the European Union since 2005. The limit value for asbestos exposure in the workplace is 0.1 fibres per cubic centimetre in the EU, and is to be reduced tenfold to 0.01 fibres per cubic centimetre in the coming years. In some EU member states, such as Germany, the limit is already 0.01 fibres per cubic centimetre, and asbestos was banned in Germany as early as 1993. In other European countries such as France, Austria or Italy, asbestos was also banned as early as the 1990s. However, the EU is still far from asbestos-free, and many older buildings still have asbestos in their structure and façade. The European Union has therefore set itself the goal of making the renovation of asbestos-contaminated buildings a top priority.
2. In Great Britain
The use of asbestos in construction in the United Kingdom has been banned throughout the country since 1999. With some exceptions, where special licences and strict conditions apply, asbestos can no longer be used in manufacturing and processing industries in the UK.
However, many buildings in the United Kingdom built before the new millennium still contain asbestos. The UK Health and Safety Executive estimates that around 5000 people in the United Kingdom still die each year as a result of contact with asbestos. However, because the dangers of processing asbestos are far greater than living in a house where asbestos has been installed, the government in the UK is not pushing as hard for renovations of affected buildings as is the case in the European Union.
3. In Switzerland
In the Swiss Confederation, asbestos was completely banned in 1989. However, buildings constructed before the end of the transitional period in 1990 may still be contaminated with asbestos in this country. The Swiss Federal Office of Public Health therefore advises homeowners in Switzerland to exercise extreme caution when renovating buildings that were built before 1991. No one knows exactly how much asbestos is still installed in Switzerland. However, the state accident insurer SUVA estimates that around 80 per cent of all buildings built before 1991 contain asbestos. Large public buildings such as railway stations or shopping centres in Switzerland were cleaned of asbestos on a grand scale between 2002 and 2012. SUVA speaks of more than 8500 asbestos renovations that are said to have taken place in this ten-year period.
4. Other countries
Contrary to public belief, asbestos is not banned worldwide. The material is still mined and used in buildings and industrial products. Except for the United States of America and Canada, all western industrialized countries have banned asbestos. Asbestos is also now banned in some countries in East Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and South America, including for example Japan, China, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Argentina. In many emerging and developing countries, however, asbestos is still legal or at least tolerated in the construction industry. Especially in India and in many African states, asbestos continues to be used regularly because it is particularly cheap and offers beneficial properties. Some countries such as India and Canada have limited or banned the mining of asbestos, but allow it to be used to a certain extent in construction and industry in their own countries. Other countries do not allow asbestos in the construction industry, but continue to mine and export it.
What is there to know about asbestos around your home?
If you discover that asbestos has been installed in your home, this may at first seem distressing. However, numerous studies have shown that installed asbestos is far less dangerous than when it is being processed. However, since health risks cannot be completely ruled out, it is still advisable to remove asbestos from your home as soon as possible. In the following section, you will learn everything you need to know if you want to rid your home of asbestos.
How to remove asbestos from constructions and homes?
If you know or suspect that asbestos has been installed in your home, you should not carry out renovation work yourself. To be safe, if your home was built before asbestos was banned in your country, you must assume that asbestos was used. Great care should be taken when renovating asbestos houses. The work can release asbestos fibres in high concentrations that can cause chronic and potentially fatal diseases for years or even decades after contamination.
Therefore, never carry out any work yourself on a house in which asbestos has been incorporated. It is imperative that the removal of asbestos is carried out by professionals, no matter what you have heard in your local community. Before starting the job, inform building contractors that asbestos may be installed and make sure that the company in question can remove the asbestos.
Which companies can do the job for you
Have a professional contractor check your house for asbestos and hire specialists to do the removal. In most countries, there are construction companies that specialize in the removal of asbestos from houses and have years of experience in this field.
For critical work such as asbestos removal, it is not advisable to turn every penny twice and go for the cheapest contractor. The health of you and the workers is at stake, and it is advisable to go for professional companies who are experts in this field. Excessive cost-cutting when it comes to removing asbestos can come back to haunt you in the form of construction work that is due again or in the form of health problems.
What material to replace asbestos with?
The materials with which the installed asbestos can be replaced depend on the form in which the asbestos was laid. For example, the alternatives for pipes containing asbestos are fundamentally different from the alternatives for fibre concrete. In Europe, asbestos was often used in construction for insulation. Here, asbestos can be replaced by other insulation materials such as glass, ceramic or rock wool or . If asbestos was used in roof construction, slate, titanium zinc or roof tiles are recommended. In most cases, however, the building contractor carrying out the asbestos removal may suggest appropriate alternatives.
How is asbestos disposed of?
In many countries, asbestos is considered hazardous waste, which may not be disposed of as normal waste. According to the European Waste Catalogue, asbestos is also considered hazardous waste and must be labelled accordingly.
The disposal itself can take place through various procedures. However, none of these methods are ideal and a solution to completely eliminate or recycle asbestos has not yet been found. One of the reasons for this is that asbestos is chemically very stable and therefore highly resistant to heat and acid. This fact was seen as beneficial during installation, but when it comes to disposal, the chemical stability of asbestos is a major concern.
Methods used in Europe to dispose of asbestos include mechanical crushing, thermal vitrification, annealing, chemical dissolution or incorporation into cement or other binders. In none of these methods is the asbestos completely dissolved afterwards, which is why the remnants must continue to be stored as hazardous waste for most methods.
How expensive is it to have asbestos removed?
Depending on the type of asbestos installed and in which country your home is located, the cost of asbestos removal varies, even in Europe. On average, however, you should expect costs of around 35 to 40 euros per square metre for the removal of asbestos installed as insulation. With increasing size, the costs per square metre decrease on average. However, you must bear in mind that the price per square metre is not the only cost. In addition to the cost of removing the asbestos per square metre, there are travel costs, scaffolding rental, disposal and possible work that needs to be done to get to the asbestos and to cover the asbestos overnight.
You can find a table below indicating how much you can expect to pay for the removal of asbestos in Europe per square metre in different size ranges
|Square metres||Price per square metre||Total price|
|1||35 to 40 Euros||35 to 40 Euros|
|100||32 to 37 Euros||2,500 to 3,500 Euros|
|1000||28 to 34 Euros||28,000 to 34,000 Euros|
Asbestos at home: Summary
For a long time, asbestos was considered a miracle fibre. Emerging doubts about the hazardous effects of this material on health were kept at bay for almost a century. Fortunately, asbestos is now banned in most European countries. However, in many countries of the global south and in North America, asbestos is still not banned and in some countries asbestos is still being mined.
In Europe, too, asbestos is found in many older buildings. The health consequences for residents seem to be limited, but risks cannot be ruled out. The EU has therefore set itself the goal of ensuring that asbestos houses are decontaminated more quickly and efficiently. Therefore, you should consider renovating your house if it contains asbestos. However, do not make any changes yourself and leave the removal of the asbestos to professionals. They know how to protect themselves and how to dispose of the asbestos properly. Depending on the country and the way the asbestos was installed, you can expect different costs. In Europe, the average is around 35 to 40 euros per square metre, plus costs for travel, disposal, etc. The bigger the asbestos area, the lower the costs per square metre.
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