Asbestos information page

What is asbestos?

Asbestos (derived from the Greek word for inextinguishable) is a term used for the fibrous form of a number of naturally occurring silicate minerals (part of the amphibole double-chain silicates and serpentine sheet-silicate mineral groups). Asbestos has been mined for many years in countries such as Canada, the United States, Australia, South Africa and Russia. The three main types of commercially used asbestos are:

Other asbestos types, such as the fibrous amphiboles Anthophyllite, Tremolite and Actinolite, are in use. However these are of a lesser commercial significance than the three types highlighted above. The asbestos colours cannot be seen with the naked eye. Asbestos materials generally look grey, white or a mixture with dark patches. There is no simple test to identify the asbestos type. Consequently the asbestos type can only be identified with certainty by appropriate laboratory analysis.

  • Amosite ('brown asbestos') named after Asbestos Mines of South Africa, it is a fibrous variety of Grunerite an iron-rich variety of the magnesium-iron Cummingtonite-Grunerite series of amphiboles.

Chemical formula: (Fe,Mg)7Si8O22(OH)2

  • Chrysotile ('white asbestos'), a fibrous variety of magnesium silicate in the Serpentine group of sheet silicate minerals.

Chemical formula: Mg6Si4O10(OH)8

  • Crocidolite ('blue asbestos') is a fibrous variety of the sodium-rich amphibole riebeckite

Chemical formula: Na2(Fe,Mg)5Si8O22(OH)2

Where may asbestos be found?

Due to its thermal insulation properties, its chemical and thermal stability, and its high tensile strength, asbestos has been used extensively in the building industry in a variety of materials. Asbestos is most likely to be found in the following types of products:

  • Insulation boards used for fire protection and thermal insulation that are found in wall panels, roof spaces and ceiling and wall tiles
  • Asbestos cement products used for fire protection and general purposes in roof sheeting, gutters, rainwater pipes and water tanks, ceiling and wall panels
  • Lagging materials used for thermal insulation around pipes and boilers, and in heaters
  • Heat resisting materials used for oven gloves, fire blankets and insulating electric cables in ovens, oven door seals
  • Certain textured coatings and plasters
  • Brake linings and clutch pads

Asbestos products were used in buildings from the 1950's to the mid-1980's. Consequently any building that was constructed or had major refurbishment works during this period is likely to contain some type of asbestos containing material (ACM).

The use of asbestos peaked between the 1960s and early 1970s. Therefore premises built or refurbished around this time are the most likely to contain some form of asbestos.

Properties built since the mid-1980s are unlikely to contain asbestos in the fabric of the building as blue (crocidolite) and brown (amosite) asbestos were banned in 1985.

Properties built since 1990 are unlikely to contain asbestos anywhere in the building. However, some asbestos containing materials usually containing white (chrysotile) asbestos, notably asbestos cement, were used until 1999.

What is the problem with asbestos?

When asbestos containing materials (ACMs) are damaged or significantly disturbed, asbestos fibres can easily become airborne and subsequently be inhaled. The body can remove the larger fibres, but the smaller microscopic fibres can pass into the lungs where they can remain for many years. This can have serious consequences for human health. However, there is no known danger from asbestos fibres that are swallowed or that come into contact with skin.

Important: Asbestos is chemically inert and its mere presence does not indicate a health hazard. Indeed, if asbestos containing materials are maintained in a good condition and in a position where they are not going to be disturbed or damaged then it is safer to leave them where they are and ensure that the risks are managed.

What is the impact of asbestos exposure?

Asbestos will only pose a risk to health if it is disturbed or damaged and asbestos fibres are released into the air. Breathing in asbestos fibres is dangerous and can lead to people developing the following fatal diseases:

  • Asbestosis (a scarring of the lung)
  • Lung cancer
  • Mesothelioma (a cancer of the lining around the lungs and stomach)
  • Diffuse pleural thickening (a non-malignant disease affecting the lung lining)

Research has not determined any "safe" level of exposure to asbestos fibres. However, it is known that the more asbestos fibres that are inhaled the greater the risk to health.

The risk is also increased for smokers and brown and blue asbestos are known to be more dangerous than white. Asbestos related disease usually occurs only as a result of prolonged exposure to asbestos dust; an isolated accidental exposure of short duration is unlikely to result in the development of disease.

The diseases are irreversible and generally develop many years after exposure has occurred, typically between 15 to 30 years. Asbestos related diseases kill more people, typically around 2500 people per year in the UK, than any other single work-related cause.

Asbestos at work

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) is responsible for the regulation of the majority of risks to health and safety arising from work activity in Britain. They have produced various guidance on asbestos and the relevant regulations, details of which are available on their website HSE Asbestos Information. In order to try to minimise the adverse health effects of asbestos in buildings, The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 were introduced. The regulations require employers to prevent exposure of employees to asbestos. This means that employers must:

  • Determine the location and condition of materials likely to contain asbestos
  • Presume materials contain asbestos unless there is strong evidence that they do not
  • Make and keep a record of the location and condition of the materials in the building containing asbestos or presumed to contain asbestos
  • Assess the risk of anyone being exposed to asbestos fibres from these materials
  • Prepare a plan on how these risks are to be managed
  • Review and monitor the plan
  • Provide information on the location and condition of the materials to anyone likely to disturb them (e.g. contractors or building maintenance workers)

Other work related asbestos legislation includes the Asbestos (Licensing) Regulations 1983 and the Asbestos (Prohibitions) Regulations 1992. The 1983 regulations require that contractors working with asbestos must hold a licence issued by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The 1992 regulations have banned the importation into the UK, and the supply and new use within Great Britain, of all products containing asbestos.

All the information you may need about working with asbestos materials, including conforming to the Asbestos (Licensing) Regulations 1983 and the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002, is available from the HSE Reading list for working with asbestos

What is asbestos cement

Asbestos cement is a well bonded, sheet building material, commonly used for roofing of outbuildings such as garages. It usually contains white asbestos bonded into the cement matrix. Care must be taken not to confuse it with asbestos insulation board which is similar in appearance, but much more hazardous since it is softer and more easily damaged thus releasing fibres into the air.

However, the asbestos fibres in asbestos cement materials can also become airborne if the cement is broken and damaged. Removal of asbestos cement does not require removal by a licensed contractor. The Asbestos Licensing Regulations do not apply to asbestos cement products. However, it is classified as Special Waste and must be disposed of at a licensed landfill.

Identifying asbestos

Since 1976 British asbestos manufacturers have had to put labels on most of their products to show that they contain asbestos. Unfortunately, labels are often removed after purchase. Since early 1986, all products have carried the European label. If you are in doubt, the supplier or manufacturer of a building material or appliance may be able to tell you whether it contains asbestos. Contractors such as plumbers and heating engineers may also have experience in identifying asbestos. In the absence of any labelling, the only way to definitively identify asbestos is to have it analysed by an accredited laboratory. Therefore the only safe course is to treat all material that may contain asbestos as if it does contain asbestos.

The Heath and Safety Executive have a useful asbestos gallery showing pictures of asbestos containing materials.

Asbestos in the Home

Remember that asbestos does not present a problem if it is in a good state of repair. If you suspect that your property contains asbestos and are concerned, seek specialist advice. If you are confident in your ability to identify asbestos containing material it would be advisable to:

  • Conduct a survey to locate all possible sources of asbestos.
  • Carefully check that any asbestos has not been damaged and that there is no dust arising from it.
  • If surfaces are unpainted, paint them to prevent any dust from escaping. Use emulsion paint for insulating board and alkali resistant primer for asbestos cement. Do not rub down surfaces before painting.
  • Make a note of these possible sources of asbestos for future reference and check the condition of this material periodically.

If damaged, asbestos containing material is encountered in the home, seek specialist advice. Work involving asbestos cement does not require a licence. Therefore it is legal for householders to perform asbestos repair or removal work in their own home. However, it is uncomfortable, physically demanding and potentially dangerous work. Please note that work involving other types of asbestos is usually more hazardous, requires more stringent precautions and must be performed by a suitably licensed specialist.

If householders intend to work with asbestos cement, then the following precautions are advised to minimise the risk from generating asbestos dust:

  • Prepare the work area by removing any unnecessary items and cover the floor and surfaces with disposable polythene sheeting
  • Do not eat, drink or smoke and keep other people away from the work area
  • Wear protective clothing that should include a disposable coverall with hood (wear legs over footwear), rubber or disposable gloves, disposable facemask approved for use with asbestos (follow the user instructions carefully), and footwear that can be easily cleaned such as rubber boots
  • Turn off any heating or cooling systems and seal vents with duct tap
  • Damp down the asbestos by using a plant sprayer or a hosepipe with a fine mist of water. Add some detergent to the water if possible. Do not soak the area, as this will make cleaning up more difficult. Never use a jet/pressure washer. If a dry area is exposed during work, wet it immediately
  • Remove asbestos in complete sheets taking care not to break it up and release fibres
  • Never sand down or wire-brush asbestos and do not use power tools
  • If fixings are difficult to undo, try to cut them off rather than break the asbestos
  • Double wrap the asbestos in strong polythene sheeting or bags and seal with tape as you go along. Label clearly as asbestos. Do not allow the asbestos waste to pile up and do not put into the dustbin
  • After repairs have been carried out, mop and wipe the area with a disposable damp cloth. Never use a vacuum cleaner, as this will just spread dust around
  • Place contaminated cloths, polythene sheeting and protective clothing in a strong polythene bag while they are still damp and seal the bag with tape. Dispose of these as asbestos waste

Further information about asbestos may be found on the Health and Safety Executive website.

Disposing of asbestos

Asbestos waste, defined as containing more than 0.1% w/w (by weight) asbestos in the waste, is subject to the waste management controls set out in the Special Waste Regulations 1996.

These Regulations require the waste to be consigned to a site which is authorised to accept asbestos waste. This is enforced by the Environment Agency and local authorities. Do not put asbestos waste into the dustbin as this is an offence.

Is there anywhere in Milton Keynes where I can dispose of asbestos waste from my home?

The New Bradwell Household Waste Recycling Centre (off Newport Road, New Bradwell) will accept domestic sheet asbestos waste from Milton Keynes householders - provided it will fit through the slot of the containment bin, but not commercial, construction or demolition waste. Legislation states it must be completely (double) wrapped in plastic for the safety of members of the public and the on site staff.

No other Household Waste Recycling Centre in Milton Keynes is licensed to accept asbestos containing materials. Unfortunately, Milton Keynes Council cannot collect asbestos waste due to licensing conditions.

Precautions when handling suspected asbestos material

It is advisable to take the following precautions when handling suspected asbestos material. Keep the material damp to reduce the chance of fibres becoming airborne. Wear a disposable dust mask, coveralls and gloves when handling the material. These can then be double bagged and thrown away after use. Double bag the material in plastic bags or tape polythene sheets round material to prevent the release of fibres into your vehicle and the atmosphere.

Commercial disposal of asbestos waste

Instead of doing it yourself a number of waste disposal companies offer asbestos removal services. Service directories, such as the Yellow Pages and the Thomson Directory, will list such companies under 'Asbestos Removal' or 'Waste Disposal'. Additionally, the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association (ARCA) website provides advice and information on the removal of hazardous waste. It also lists contractors who are United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) accredited for working with asbestos.

Transporting waste

An important point to note is that any company that transports waste on the highway is required to be a registered waste carrier. This process is regulated by the Environment Agency. However, householders transporting their own asbestos waste in their own vehicle are not required to be registered waste carriers.

Asbestos fly-tipping

Incidents where suspected asbestos containing material has been dumped on council land should be reported to Milton Keynes Council's Regulatory Unit by email or tel. 01908 252398.  An authorised officer will then visit the site where the material is alleged to have been deposited and will take the appropriate action to have it removed.

If asbestos is dumped on private land, it is the responsibility of the land owner to dispose of the material appropriately.


  • If asbestos containing materials are in good condition they should be left alone - treat asbestos with respect
  • If asbestos containing materials are damaged, asbestos fibres and dust can be released into the air
  • Breathing asbestos fibres and dust can be harmful to human health
  • However, contact with skin and ingestion poses no risk to health
  • If you think you have an asbestos problem in your home - SEEK ADVICE