“Hazardous Surveying” Asbestos and Indoor Air Quality

Warsaw 27 August 2013

Asbestos Fibres

Asbestos was a widely used fire retardant material which was woven or encapsulated in building materials and system to prevent the spread and passage of fire. As “Asbestos Abatement” took hold in Western Europe Central European manufacturers took advantage of low cost Asbestos raw materials for more than two decades.

“As asbestos contained materials [ACM’s] near the end of their usable life cycle they become dry and as they decay they crumble easily releasing toxic micro fibers into the air we breathe”        

Woven into concrete Asbestos creates a low cost strong and rigid materials for such systems as roof panels, insulation boards, pipes and conduits although these materials present a real danger to health in some conditions they can be readily seen decaying all across Central Eastern Europe.

Why is Asbestos So Dangerous?

Asbestos occurs naturally in minerals it consists of tiny hair like fibers which once inhaled can remain in the respiratory system for many years where they can causes various forms of malignant lung cancer including Mesothelioma, and Asbestosis. Inhalation risks other illnesses as a result of mechanical damage. In any building environment where Asbestos is installed Asbestos is a significant risk to all building users. Reasonable exposure to Asbestos now can go undetected however be fatal later in life. Smokers who are exposed to Asbestos are at considerable risk from malignant lung cancer.

Many thousands of buildings in Central and Eastern Europe contain Asbestos fire proofing, fire stopping and other materials. Many more have asbestos roofs or are supplied water through Asbestos pipes. As ACM’s [Asbestos Contained Materials] end their life cycle they often become brittle or decompose they crumble even with the slightest impact releasing their toxic fibers into the air we breathe.

ACM’s safely encapsulated in their original systems and safely embedded in walls and roof voids or underneath plaster can remain dormant for decades without any risk to building users. However major refurbishment, renovation and demolition works of these older buildings and facilities eventually causes ACM’s Asbestos exposure and this disturbance risks ACM’s fiber to circulate in ducts and ventilation systems and the rooms we occupy. Where buildings are refurbished with partial occupation building users are potentially at considerable risk from Indoor Air Quality

How is Asbestos Managed?

Any discovery of ACM’s exposure needs be reported and buildings with known ACM’s should already be registered with the local town authority. Inspection of ACM’s to evaluate their risk to building users is a very specialized profession and can only be undertaken by specialized licensed companies.

Building owners need to develop a short and medium term plan to manage ACM’s on their property and with the eventual removal and disposal of all ACM’s as their short or medium term goal.

Any refurbishment or renovation works of old buildings for change of use or renewal needs to be surveyed for obvious ACM content and a risk register must be devised for uncovering each and every type of works where ACM’s are likely.

Asbestos roof sheets, pipes and conduits generally present lower health risks to building users than well sheltered dry, decaying pipe and duct linings. However even managing works with ACM’s outdoors  from demolition such as roofing materials can prove lethal. Brown [amphibole] and Blue Asbestos [crocidolite] can be lethal and are both treated as equally detrimental to health

When was Asbestos Popular?                

The use of Asbestos predates Roman times asbestos means “Inextinguishable” in ancient Greek. Asbestos has always been known to be dangerous. Roman naturalists Pliny and Elder wrote of “Sickness of the Lungs” of those that mined it or wove it already in the first century. Asbestos played a major part in the Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century. Between the Wars and in the earliest part of the last Century Asbestos had its “hay day” in Western Europe, Japan and the United States. Asbestos and especially ACM’s became very popular in Russia and Central Eastern Europe in the latter half of the last Century as it presented a low cost durable building system.

Asbestos and Health

Although the first recorded death certificate from Asbestosis was recorded in 1906 it was not until 30 years later that legislation took care for miners and those workers most exposed to Asbestos. Despite knowledge of health hazards of Asbestos in modern history Asbestos became a major industry shortly after World War II especially in Central and Eastern Europe and at one time Asbestos was included in over 3,000 products.

Between the thirty years from the 1940’s to the 1970’s Asbestos both had its hay day and started its redundancy in all types of industries. Asbestos “friction products” were available for all forms of transport. Asbestos textiles were imbedded in concrete or gypsum as common place to protect building users against fire and to prevent the spread of fire in buildings.

Asbestos reinforced materials such as roof tiles, water goods and piping are still in active service everywhere in Central and Eastern Europe. Most ACM’s in good condition pose little risk to building users and their environment however health risk increases as ACM’s become exposed or decay.

Asbestos is no longer used in new buildings and its abatement has begun for the removal from all types of older buildings in Central and Eastern Europe. ACM’s have a prolonged life cycle of 30 years or more in ideal conditions since the manufacture of ACM’s and the use of Asbestos was not banned in Poland until 1998 because of economic reasons, Asbestos will still present public health and building user problems in Central Europe for more than a generation to come

The modern threat of Asbestos

Friable ACM’s are a risk to construction workers who are engaged in the refurbishment, remodeling or demolition of old buildings. Where refurbishment and other works is carried out in phases building users occupying these premises at the time of refurbishment works are particularly at risk from Asbestos.

The Demise of the Asbestos Industry

The health risks to those who worked in asbestos industry was well known even by the end of the 1800’s. During the 1940’s and the war efforts tens of thousands of munitions and other workers were exposed to high levels of Asbestos. The demise of the Asbestos Industry occurred after the War, death rates in the transport and shipping industry from Mesothelioma  topped 14 per 1000 in one US ship building company many more died from Asbestosis. Death rates in Asbestos mining and materials handling industry topped 70% of its workforce before the health authorities ended its manufacture in Europe and the United States.

In Central Europe no natural Asbestos deposits occur of commercial consequence and raw Asbestos was imported mainly from Russia. Poland for example imported more than 100,000 tons per years of raw asbestos in its industrial peak in the 1970’s when Asbestos employed more than 9000 people directly. Over 100 state owned factories produced ACM’s in Poland between the late 1950’s and at the real demise of the Asbestos manufacturing industry. In 1992 production had dropped to below 30,000 tons per year. Poland, the Czech Republic and Former Eastern Germany were among the world’s largest producers and consumers of ACM’s and at the time ACM’s were used everywhere.

Asbestos Abatement

In 1998 as the last Polish asbestos works finally closed its doors a Swedish health inspectorate report described Asbestos Abatement practices in Poland as badly managed “the control and management of Asbestos and ACM’s in Central Europe often exposes building users, even young children and the public to unnecessary risk, it will be the source of much Asbestos Litigation in future”.

ACM’s  are widespread in Poland it is estimated that 15.5 million tons of asbestos  containing components and systems are currently installed. Although older installation of ACM’s become fewer as more and more installation become redundant and are demolished those that remain become a more potent risk to building user health and as their condition decays.

“Asbestos is a real hazard for the building surveyor whose duties includes inspecting voids, fire cupboards and other poorly ventilated spaces in buildings and infrastructure. Building and Energy Value Engineering Surveyors need take special precautions when conducting technical due diligence on any building in Central Eastern Europe which was constructed before the 1990’s”