Asbestos is a naturally occurring substance with many desirable properties making it a cheap and versatile material for use in industry. Historically asbestos has been widely used in an array of building applications. Its use in the building industry spans back thousands of years but full-scale mining of the substance and its use in industry began in the 19th century.
In the early 20th century however, there was growing concern over its use as cases and research began to appear implicating it in the death of asbestos miners and of factory workers. Workers who handled asbestos or who used materials made from the material presented with lung and pulmonary diseases some of which, such as lung cancer and mesothelioma, were fatal. From the 1970’s onward, its use in industry began to be restricted and over the ensuing decades, asbestos became a banned substance throughout the industrialised world.
Asbestos and the roofing industry
One of the widest uses of asbestos in the building industry was in roofing. Due to its heat and fire resistant properties asbestos was added to many roofing products including roofing tiles.
Asbestos tiles did not comprise solely of asbestos. Asbestos roofing tiles are actually largely made from cement, with the now banned product added into the cement mixture. Depending on the manufacturer, the cement tiles comprised typically of between 10-15% asbestos.
In addition to its heat and fire resistant properties, asbestos has excellent strength and durability features. New homes built prior to 1970’s with asbestos roofs, were lauded for the longevity of their roof systems, as the roofs had a life expectancy of 30-50 years.
Asbestos and its hazards
Asbestos is a naturally occurring substance. In the environment it poses virtually no threat to humans. The problem with asbestos arose out of the full-scale mining, extraction and use of the substance in industry and thus therefore the amount of asbestos in the air. Asbestos fibres are microscopic. When they are exposed they can become airborne and inhaled. Once inhaled, they can lodge in the outer tissue lining of the lungs and abdomen, which over time leads to inflammation, scarring and the eventual formation of fatal diseases such as lung cancer.
Types of asbestos
In the UK three types of asbestos were used in the manufacture of roofing products, namely crocidolite (blue asbestos), amosite (brown asbestos) and chrysolite (white asbestos). Each of these pose different levels of danger with crocidolite deemed the most dangerous. Its use was stopped in the UK in the 1960’s and was commonly used in pipe insulation and pipe panels. The least hazardous type, chrysolite was the most commonly used type of asbestos in the manufacture of cement asbestos tiles.
Are asbestos roof tiles dangerous?
The simple answer to this question is no. In most cases asbestos roof tiles pose no health hazard in and of themselves. The dangerous fibres of the substance are kept firmly in place by the cement. However, roof tiles can potentially become dangerous when the tiles begin to deteriorate thereby exposing the asbestos fibres. Similarly any operation that causes abrasion of the tiles is potentially hazardous for the same reason.
Asbestos roof removal and replacement
Having or buying a home with asbestos tiles does not mean you need to remove the tiles especially if they are still in good health. If you know or suspect you have cement asbestos shingles, it is advisable that you monitor your roof to check for its health.
If you are planning renovations or if indeed the roof becomes damaged or begins to deteriorate, the roof may need to be removed and replaced with safer non-asbestos containing roofing products.
Can I remove asbestos roof myself?
While there are no legal restrictions in you doing so, it is advisable that you do not remove asbestos roofs on your own. Instead, hire a reputable contractor who will ensure that the materials are properly removed and disposed of. Find a UK contractor here.
Want to learn more about asbestos? VICE's recent short documentary on the Asbestos is a great insight into the industry that is still alive and well, the material itself and the health issues it can cause.