How much asbestos is still in buildings in the UK?

Roughly a quarter of a century has now passed since the importation and use of all types of asbestos in the UK was finally banned, courtesy of the Asbestos Prohibition (Amendment) Regulations 1999. However, this does not mean asbestos has ceased to be a “live” issue in the UK, or that there are no longer any asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) in UK buildings.

How much asbestos is still in buildings in the UK?

Quite the opposite is the case, in fact; it has been reported in recent years that as many as 1.5 million buildings across the country might still contain the naturally occurring fibres. Indeed, the carcinogen is spread across not only domestic properties, but also commercial and public buildings such as offices, hospitals, and schools.

There are several reasons for the continued widespread prevalence of ACMs in the UK. Firstly, the 1999 ban did not contain an automatic requirement for asbestos to be removed from any and all UK properties in which the lethal substance had already been installed during its period of legal use.

Secondly, it should not be overlooked just how widely asbestos-containing products were used in the construction and renovation of UK buildings since the mineral was first commercially mined in the mid-19th century. On the basis of such factors as the material’s physical strength, fire resistance, and effectiveness as an insulator, it was incorporated into all manner of products such as asbestos insulating board (AIB), asbestos cement products, and textured decorative coatings.

Asbestos was particularly heavily used in the UK construction industry from around the 1950s until the 1980s. In light of this legacy, this article will look at the ongoing relevance of asbestos in the UK in the 2020s, including the extent of its current presence in buildings up and down the country.

Why was asbestos used so much in the UK?

The naturally occurring, fibrous silicate mineral known as asbestos was once hailed as a “wonder material” in the UK. A highly inexpensive and easily available substance that was also highly durable and weatherproof, while also not burning easily, asbestos seemed to tick every priority box for construction firms in the UK for the bulk of the 20th century.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, asbestos was frequently mixed with other materials during its peak period of use, to create a wide range of asbestos-containing products. The likes of AIB panels, tiles, and soffits, asbestos cement roof tiles, asbestos vinyl floor tiles, and asbestos textiles and gaskets were extensively used in properties around the UK.

However, it also became gradually better known over the years that asbestos posed possibly extremely serious health risks to people who ingested or breathed in its fibres. Concerns intensified that such exposure to asbestos heightened the affected individual’s risk of developing potentially fatal conditions such as mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer. Today, this connection is well-established, and around 5,000 people a year still die from asbestos-related disease in the UK.

What is the legacy of asbestos after the ban?

Today, it is especially likely that a given building in the UK will contain ACMs if it was constructed or renovated before the year 2000.

In theory, as a consequence of the 1999 ban, a building that was constructed after the year 2000 should not contain any asbestos. Having said this, it is worth bearing in mind that there are a few circumstances in which asbestos may conceivably have still ended up in a post-2000 property.

Legal loopholes are one factor, as existing stocks of asbestos-containing materials and products were allowed to remain active until they reached the end of their service life. Indeed, exemptions on the use of chrysotile asbestos remained in place until as late as 2005.

A post-2000 property in the UK could also contain asbestos if ACMs have ever been transported into the premises. Asbestos may also be discovered in buildings constructed after the 1999 ban in cases where a previous, pre-2000 building was demolished with ACMs still inside, thereby leaving loose asbestos fibres in the ground at the brownfield site.

We mentioned above that thousands of deaths a year in the UK can be attributed to asbestos-related disease, even in the 2020s. Many such deaths that occur today will be in relation to incidents of asbestos exposure dating from prior to the 1999 ban. This is because asbestos-related disease does not tend to present symptoms until about 20 to 30 years after the hazardous substance is breathed in or swallowed.

How much asbestos is still in buildings in the UK?

Various analyses and estimates have been carried out down the years, as part of efforts to determine the prevalence of asbestos in UK buildings today.

One especially eye-catching report, by the ResPublica think tank in 2019, estimated about some six million tons of asbestos remained present across 1.5 million buildings in the UK. The same organisation estimated that 80% of UK schools contained asbestos, while an only slighter smaller proportion (74%) of universities reported asbestos in their buildings.

Fast-forward to November 2022, when a landmark report into asbestos in UK buildings was published by the Asbestos Testing and Consultancy Association (ATaC) and the National Organisation of Asbestos Consultants (NORAC).

This report analysed anonymised data gathered by a range of reputable asbestos surveying organisations over the period from October 2021 to March 2022. Some 128,761 buildings in total were inspected, with 78% of these – 100,660 properties – being found to contain asbestos (710,433 positive asbestos items in total).

Breaking down those figures by building type, domestic premises accounted for 73% of the total sites (94,116 sites). Of these, 80,731 sites – or 86% of them – were found to contain some form of ACM. A total of 389,700 asbestos items were recorded across the 80,731 domestic sites, which works out as an average of almost five occurrences of ACM for each property.

Such statistics serve as a crucial reminder of the importance of building owners and managers avoiding complacency towards asbestos on their premises today. This principle applies even more strongly given the scope for ACMs to deteriorate over time, which could lead to the substance posing a heightening risk of dangerous fibre release.

What is the regulatory framework for asbestos management?

Stringent legislation now exists in the UK to help ensure the safe and responsible management of ACMs across domestic and non-domestic sites alike.

The overarching piece of legislation in the UK, with regard to the management of asbestos in non-domestic premises, is the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, or CAR 2012. These regulations set out certain requirements that employers, employees, and those responsible for managing the maintenance of non-domestic premises need to be aware of.

Regulations 5 and 6 of CAR 2012 provide details on the duty to protect oneself and others from asbestos exposure while at work, even if that work is being done in a domestic property.

As for if the given premises to be managed is a non-domestic one, regulation 4 of CAR 2012 – on the “duty to manage” asbestos – is crucial. This part of the legislation requires the person who is in charge of maintaining the given non-domestic premises – in other words, the “dutyholder” – to carry out certain actions.

Those actions encompass – but are not limited to – taking reasonable steps to determine what ACMs are present in their building, as well as information on the location, amount, and condition of any such ACMs. Using the details learned through this process, the dutyholder will also be obliged to create, and keep up to date, an asbestos management plan. Furthermore, they will be expected to regularly review and monitor this plan.

How do you identify asbestos and what are the management strategies to follow?

We mentioned above that there is a “duty to manage” asbestos for certain individuals who are responsible for maintaining non-domestic properties. This underlines how important it is to be proactive in finding out the most accurate information about any ACMs on a site for which you are responsible, so that you can take the right actions to help ensure safety.

Sure enough, the right asbestos survey will enable you to uncover this information. An asbestos survey, as carried out by a suitably qualified surveyor, will allow you to identify ACMs on your site, in addition to assessing the level of any damage or deterioration to those ACMs, and whether remedial action will be needed.

You will then be able to feed this information into the asbestos register for your site, alongside the production of an asbestos management plan.

It should be noted that two main types of asbestos survey exist, as recognised by the regulations:

  • The management survey, which is designed to help the dutyholder identify and manage ACMs on their site when the building is in normal occupation and use
  • The refurbishment or demolition survey, which is a legal requirement ahead of any especially disruptive works to a building – such as refurbishment or demolition – that would present a high likelihood of ACMs being disturbed.

What does the future hold for asbestos in UK buildings?

As the law stands right now, there is no automatic obligation for asbestos to be removed from any and all UK buildings in which the hazardous substance is found to exist. Indeed, it continues to be UK Government policy to leave ACMs in place unless they have been disturbed or damaged.

However, amid increasing awareness of the potential for ACMs to deteriorate and present a higher risk over time in a given building, political pressure is increasing to put in place more proactive plans to remove the material from UK buildings.

The Sunday Times newspaper has recently campaigned for a phased removal of asbestos, beginning with schools and hospitals. A petition last year, as published on the UK Government and Parliament Petitions website, also called for the phased removal of asbestos and the creation of a central asbestos register; it attracted more than 10,000 signatures.

While the Government has resisted such calls for now, our team at Oracle Solutions will keep a close eye out for any further developments on this front over the years ahead.

Conclusion: asbestos remains a material to be managed in buildings across the UK

As we have outlined here, the situation of asbestos in UK buildings – and the risks the substance could therefore still pose in the event of disturbance and/or deterioration to ACMs – is still an “active” one. As many as 1.5 million buildings across the country might still contain asbestos.

So, it remains of critical importance that all responsible parties – including “dutyholders” under CAR 2012 – stay proactive and vigilant in pursuing and achieving compliance with the asbestos regulations, in order to protect public health.

Political pressure is intensifying to remove existing asbestos materials from buildings on the path towards an “asbestos-free” future in the UK. However, it remains to be seen what future steps might ultimately arise from this on a governmental level.

Are you seeking reputable, Health and Safety Executive (HSE)-licensed asbestos services? If so, please feel free to email Oracle Solutions for a free and fast quote, or to call us today.

How much asbestos is still in buildings in the UK? 1

Written by Jess Scott

Jess Scott has been an all-round asbestos consultant since 1996. That’s nearly 3 decades of asbestos knowledge. He spends his time sharing that knowledge with the team at Oracle and with their clients. Jess's goal is, and always has been, to use my expertise in helping people to comply with the law. This legal compliance ultimately helps to protect everyone from the harmful effects of asbestos. Jess has acted as an asbestos expert witness in legal cases and is involved in many asbestos educational activities throughout the UK.