Is there asbestos in my home?


The short answer to this question is if you live in a flat or a house built anytime up to 2000, then possibly there’s asbestos lurking somewhere. If your home was built from the 1950s to the 1980s then it’s actually quite likely. So as much of our local housing stock falls in these categories, it’s a subject thats been moving up our radar.

Not long ago it wasn’t particularly high on the agenda and didn’t come up much in surveys. When I go to surveyor seminars, current problems often overshadow others and since the Grenfell disaster it’s been a preoccupation with fire hazards. Ironically this is the opposite of asbestos issues, which was originally favoured as a building material because it’s fire retardant. At Grenfell it was the Aluminium Composite Material which caught fire although the block did have internal asbestos containing materials (ACMs).

Even if you’re alert to the possible presence of hazardous material in buildings, it’s often hard to judge whether something definitely contains asbestos or not. So along with other items we’re obliged to state in property details, such as council tax and energy rating bands, we now add the advice that many buildings built in the UK up to the 1990s may contain asbestos, so if that is a concern to you, you should seek a professional assessment.

So what is asbestos and why is it a problem? Asbestos is a group of six naturally occurring minerals made up of thin, microscopic fibres and mined extensively from the 19th century. Chemical resistant, fireproof and strong, it seemed to be a wonder material and was widely used for many years in roofs, walls, floors, partitions and insulation, and added to tiles and cement. When you start to trawl through how many everyday items might have asbestos in them, its amazingly prevalent. Who knew there was asbestos in your Bakelite door handles or your 1950s toilet cistern ? Many of you may have an old ironing board or oven gloves with asbestos in them. 

But over time evidence started to mount asbestos had health risks. When fibres and dust are released and get into your lungs they can cause long term damage.  Mesothelioma, for example, a lung lining disease, is almost always due to exposure to asbestos. There’s a specific lung scarring condition called asbestosis, which took one of my friend’s fathers, and probably originated from his time serving in submarines in the 1950s, – again an environment where fire risk was more important than other considerations and there may have been loose asbestos lagging round hot pipes. For similar reasons some of the most dangerous buildings may have been schools and hospitals, with some compensation claims from teachers unions still ongoing. Though most asbestos was banned in the UK by 1993, it was only banned totally from 1999 and asbestos is still mined and used widely in some countries and added to products globally.

The most common type is chrysotile, known as white asbestos. This is what you most commonly come across locally. Its less dangerous than blue and brown asbestos and when undisturbed and intact, its not in itself harmful. Risks occur when it deteriorates or gets broken or cut into.  I opened one cupboard in a maisonette to find an asbestos insulation board (AIB) had been roughly cut, probably with a jigsaw, to fit in a larger electric consumer unit. That wasn’t a good idea and although I wasn’t doing a survey, obviously I alerted the owner.

The most common ACMs in the area are probably corrugated cement garage roofs. Next most common is probably artex textured ceilings which were common well into the 1990s. Even after asbestos was banned, who knows if every builder complied or had some remaining material to get rid off. As its impossible to tell visually, an assessor takes a sample from a ceiling and sends it to a laboratory to determine the content. The asbestos percentage in textured ceilings is usually low (less than 5%) and mixed into other materials rather than being fibrous. So even if it’s a positive result the advice may be to leave the ceilings intact. The disruption and hazard bringing an entire ceiling down can be worse than leaving it and skimming it. Similarly 1950s floor tiles commonly contain asbestos which you still find in buildings of the era but here again it’s probably easier and safer to leave them alone and put new flooring on top.

Because asbestos was fire retardant it was often used in warm air heating systems which most of the local Wates built houses and maisonettes originally had.  Many elements have been removed over the years but you can get legacy items such as sections of asbestos cement flues going up through the loft. You find Asbestos Insulation Board (AIBs) in boiler cupboards and often a piece attached to the back of an airing cupboard door which could be simply replaced with a new door. Though some removal is relatively straightforward we still recommend you get professional removers to ensure there’s no dust or hazardous remnants.

Some local authority houses in the area have a type of guttering called Finlock gutters and as well as containing some asbestos, they’re also prone to leaking.

Large blocks of flats should have an asbestos management policy based on a professional assessment. At Parkleys in TW10 5 for example an assessment was carried out on a representative selection of flats covering each layout. Mostly the asbestos here is not exposed but ‘encapsulated’ in exterior wall panels. There are sometimes interior sections such as over the window and door between the lounge and kitchen, but often these have been removed at some point. We had a full assessment on one of the Parkleys flats in January which found no asbestos. Rather annoyingly last year we had a Natwest mortgage valuer demand an EWS (External Wall Safety) assessment on a Parkleys flat even though EWS forms are intended for high rise blocks with combustible materials. Even when challenged, the Bank they didn’t renege. So unlike football where penalty decisions can be overturned by VAR, our poor buyer in this case had to apply for a mortgage with another bank. The second mortgage valuer who is a more regular visitor to our office laughed when I told him what had happened and of course sanctioned the purchase. (Moral – don’t believe everything a mortgage valuer says, they may be rushing through 6 or 7 in a day in an area they don’t particularly know.)

You have to be alert to problems but at the same time keep them in perspective. If you want to know more about asbestos, I recommend the Health and Safety Executive website at

If you want an assessment, our usual local assessors and removers are Key Asbestos at

Stan Shaw has managed Mervyn Smith & Co. for over 25 years and is also a Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) Registered Valuer.