Dear Delia


Simon White is director of Ashdown Lyons

Asbestos is an adaptable material. It’s tough, can’t rot or warp, is both waterproof and fireproof and regretfully, as we all know under certain circumstances it can be a killer.

It might surprise you to know that in this country 3,500 people die from asbestos-related diseases every year and this figure is rising. In fact, it is predicted to continue to rise for at least the next decade.

Asbestos was used extensively as a building material from the 1950s through to as recently as the mid-1980s so there are thousands of tons of the stuff still out there. It is estimated that more than half a million non-domestic properties still contain some form of asbestos.

A few years ago, I had to report on a primary school in Farnborough in Hampshire where every ceiling was made out of asbestos cement, completely unbeknown to its Parent Teacher Association.

But what is asbestos? Asbestos is a term that is used to describe a number of naturally occurring materials that are mined, which crystallise to form long thin fibres and fibre bundles. There is only a health hazard if these fibres become disturbed and are inhaled. This commonly happens during repair or refurbishment work.

Of course, the fact that asbestos is a brilliant insulation material is the original reason it was used so extensively. There aren’t many materials around that give complete protection against fire, corrosion, cold, acids, alkalines, electricity, noise, energy loss, vibration, salt water, frost, dust and vermin.

Sadly, asbestos-related diseases can take many years to develop and only now are we realising the true extent of asbestosis and the other diseases that asbestos can cause.

So beware. Do not mess with this material when doing DIY and if you find it, have it inspected by an expert. In houses, asbestos is most commonly found in the form of sheeting as fire protection behind boiler room doors, and sometimes as insulation around pipes, as cold water tanks in lofts and sometimes as ceilings in houses built in the 1950s and 1960s.

Even artexed ceilings contain some asbestos, as do lightweight patio tiles.

Fifty years ago, the consequences of asbestos use were not fully understood and it may well be that radon gas now falls into a similar category. Radon gas is a phrase that has been bandied about for many years but few people know what it means.

Radon is a radioactive gas that occurs naturally. It has no taste, no smell, no colour and it is everywhere. It is derived from the decay of uranium found in small quantities in all soil and rocks. Radon rises out of the ground into the air and is then diluted, usually to become harmless.

The risk outdoor radon poses is negligible and it only potentially becomes a problem when it enters enclosed spaces and is allowed to build up to dangerous levels. So radon gas can be dangerous.

Figures just published show that 9% of lung cancers in this country are caused by radon gas and, not surprisingly, smokers are at a far greater risk than others. Houses and workplaces can be equally affected as air from the ground enters buildings through cracks and gaps in walls and floors and, if not allowed to dissipate, the level of radon can rise above safe levels.

Having said that, there are only a small number of areas in the country where the underlying geology results in higher than average radon levels and, even in these areas, most houses will not have a problem – or at least that is what the official line from the authorities is at the present time.

Nevertheless, building regulations now include measures requiring all new buildings to incorporate a radon barrier within their foundations so possibly those in the know are more concerned about radon gas than they are letting on.

Another term much beloved of the emotive media is contaminated land, but what is this? Contaminated land is our legacy. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say it is everywhere, beneath almost every disused petrol station, railway siding and factory used for manufacturing in the past. The Victorians were largely to blame as one of the biggest causes of land contamination is the remains of Victorian gas works.

But the government doesn’t like the term contaminated land because it sounds nasty. It prefers to use the much more cuddly and friendly term, brownfield site. But make no mistake, the two mean the same thing.The star of the show in respect of brownfield land is Battersea Power Station.

This gigantic structure was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and work on it began in 1933. The entire site is terribly contaminated and the clean-up costs alone are likely to dwarf the economies of many an African country – once everyone can agree what to do with the place.

But as a home owner don’t let all of this worry you. Your parents might say they don’t build houses like they used to but the truth of the matter is that building standards are now higher than they have ever been. And your parents were right in some respects of course – houses these days are double glazed and have insulation in the loft.

They also have utility rooms and en-suites whereas your parents’ place had lead plumbing, windows that rattled, one loo between four and hot water if you were first in line and kept your fingers crossed.

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