Frequently Asked Questions About Asbestos

The information on this page contains public sector information published by the Health and Safety Executive and licensed under the Open Government Licence

What are the health risks from asbestos?

Asbestos is responsible for over 5000 deaths every year. Younger people, if routinely exposed to asbestos fibres over time, are at greater risk of developing asbestos-related disease than older workers. This is due to the time it takes for the body to develop symptoms after exposure to asbestos (latency). Exposure to asbestos can cause four main diseases:

  • Mesothelioma (a cancer of the lining of the lungs; it is always fatal and is almost exclusively caused by exposure to asbestos)
  • Asbestos-related lung cancer (which is almost always fatal)
  • Asbestosis (a scarring of the lungs which is not always fatal but can be a very debilitating disease, greatly affecting quality of life)
  • Diffuse pleural thickening (a thickening of the membrane surrounding the lungs which can restrict lung expansion leading to breathlessness.)

You can get further detailed information on these diseases from the HSE website.

It can take anywhere between 15-60 years for any symptoms to develop after exposure, so these diseases will not affect you immediately but may do later in life. You need to start protecting yourself against any exposure to asbestos now because the effect is cumulative.

Asbestos was a widely used material within commercial buildings, homes and machinery until 1999, when it was banned. This means that asbestos is common in the general environment. However, working directly with asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) can give personal exposures to airborne asbestos that are much higher than normal environmental levels. Repeated occupational exposures can give rise to a substantial cumulative exposure over time. This will increase the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease in the future.

The majority of the current fatal cases from asbestos exposure (approximately 4000 deaths per year) are associated with very high exposures from past industrial processes and installation of asbestos products.

How do I identify asbestos?

It can be difficult to identify asbestos, as it is often mixed with other materials. The HSE asbestos image gallery shows a number of common materials that contain asbestos.

What do I do if I unexpectedly come across potential asbestos during my work?

You should stop work immediately, confirm what it is or assume it is asbestos and carry out a risk assessment. This will help determine if the work requires a licensed contractor. You should only carry out non-licensed work on asbestos if you have had the appropriate information, instruction and training.

Should my employer provide me with personal protective clothing (PPE) for work with asbestos?

Yes, if an employee is liable to be exposed to asbestos, then employers should provide that employee with adequate personal protective clothing appropriate for the work that they will be doing. The HSE Asbestos essentials sheet on PPE provides further information.

Do I need a certificate to prove that I have had asbestos training?

There is no legal requirement to hold a certificate as proof of training, however, many training providers issue a certificate to indicate completion of a training course.

Where will I find guidance/publications on asbestos?

There are a number of practical publications on asbestos available for free download on the HSE website.

Do I need a risk assessment before I start work on asbestos?

Yes, A risk assessment must be carried out before any work on asbestos begins.

Does work on asbestos cement require a licence?

Most work on asbestos cement can be carried out without a licence providing workers have had appropriate information, instruction and training. The HSE Asbestos essentials series provides further information.

What is the short duration work mentioned in the regulations?

Short duration within these regulations means any one person working for less than one hour, or more than one person working for a total of less than two hours in any 7 consecutive days.

What is the 'duty to manage' asbestos and who has it?

The duty to manage asbestos is a legal requirement under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (Regulation 4). It applies to the owners and occupiers of commercial premises (such as shops, offices, industrial units etc) who have responsibility for maintenance and repair activities. In addition to these responsibilities, they also have a duty to assess the presence and condition of any asbestos-containing materials. If asbestos is present, or is presumed to be present, then it must be managed appropriately. The duty also applies to the shared parts of some domestic premises.

Read more about The duty to manage asbestos

What is an asbestos survey and do I need one?

An asbestos survey is an effective way to help you manage asbestos in your premises by providing accurate information about the location, amount and type of any asbestos-containing materials (ACMs).  The person responsible for maintenance of non -domestic premises  must either arrange a survey if it is suspected there could be ACMs in your premises or, the duty-holder may instead choose to presume the worst case of widespread asbestos in the premises and would then need to take all appropriate full stringent precautions for any work that takes place. However, it is often less troublesome  and more proportionate to have an asbestos survey carried out so it is  absolutely clear whether asbestos is present or not and what its condition is. You need to find out if you are responsible for maintenance and are the duty holder for the asbestos.
The asbestos survey can help to provide enough information so that an asbestos register, a risk assessment and a management plan can then be prepared. The survey will usually involve sampling and analysis to determine the presence of asbestos so asbestos surveys should only be carried out by competent surveyors who can clearly demonstrate they have the necessary skills, experience and qualifications.

An asbestos survey will identify:

  • the location of any asbestos-containing materials in the building
  • the type of asbestos they contain
  • the condition these materials are in

Following a survey, the surveyor should produce a survey report which details the findings. This information can help you prepare an asbestos risk register.

What is the 'duty to manage' asbestos and who has it?

The duty to manage asbestos is a legal requirement under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (Regulation 4). It applies to the owners and occupiers of commercial premises (such as shops, offices, industrial units etc) who have responsibility for maintenance and repair activities. In addition to these responsibilities, they also have a duty to assess the presence and condition of any asbestos-containing materials. If asbestos is present, or is presumed to be present, then it must be managed appropriately. The duty also applies to the shared parts of some domestic premises.

Comprehensive advice on the duty to manage asbestos, including a step-by-step guide to help you manage asbestos in your buildings is available online..

What is an asbestos risk register?

The asbestos risk register is a key component of the required plan on how you will manage any asbestos found, or presumed to be, in your buildings. This management plan must contain current information about the presence and condition of any asbestos in the building. The asbestos risk register will therefore need to be updated on a regular basis (at least once a year). To do this you should make:

  • regular inspections to check the current condition of asbestos materials
  • deletions to the register when any asbestos is removed
  • additions to the register when new areas are surveyed and asbestos is located
  • changes to the register (at any time asbestos-containing materials are found to have deteriorated)

The risk register can be kept as a paper or electronic record and it is very important that this is kept up to date and easily accessible. Paper copies may be easier to pass on to visiting maintenance workers, who will need them to know the location and condition of any asbestos before they start work. Electronic copies are easier to update and are probably better suited for people responsible for large numbers of properties or bigger premises.

What is the control limit?

The control limit refers to the concentration of asbestos fibres in any localised atmosphere, measured and averaged over a continuous period of four hours, in accordance with the 1997 World Health Organisation's recommended method. At the moment, the control limit is 0.1 asbestos fibres per cubic centimetre of air (0.1 f/cm3). The control limit is not a 'safe' level and work activities involving asbestos should be designed to be as far below the control limit as possible. HSE has progressively tightened the control limit since 1987.

Work involving some lower risk asbestos-containing materials (eg asbestos cement products and textured decorative coatings, among others) can be carried out if a risk assessment demonstrates that the control limit will not be exceeded and that any exposure to asbestos is expected to be 'sporadic and of low intensity'. The control limit for this type of non-licensed work is 0.6 asbestos fibres per cubic centimetre of air (0.6 f/cm3), measured over a ten-minute period. Any work which is likely to result in exposures at or above this level cannot be considered to be sporadic and of low intensity and should therefore only be carried out by a licensed contractor.

When is an asbestos licence required?

Work with particular asbestos-containing materials can only be carried out by somebody who holds a licence issued by HSE. Licences are granted for a limited period of time (usually one or three years), enabling HSE to review licences and the performance of licence holders at regular intervals. For more information, see: Asbestos licensing.
Not all work with asbestos materials requires a licence. However, all work with sprayed asbestos coatings, asbestos insulation or asbestos lagging and most work with asbestos insulating board (AIB) requires a licence because of the hazardous nature of these higher risk materials. For information on when you might require a licence and the application process, see: Licensable work with asbestos

For those doing licensed work, the current Regulations require that employers must keep a health record for employees and they must also be kept under regular medical surveillance. The health record must be kept for 40 years after the date of the last entry in it. If an employee has been exposed to asbestos, the health record must note the following:

  • the date, time and how long the exposure to asbestos was for
  • the type of asbestos (if known)
  • the levels of asbestos exposed to (if known)
What about asbestos removal?

The removal of higher risk asbestos-containing materials (sprayed asbestos coatings, asbestos insulation, asbestos lagging and most work involving asbestos insulating board (AIB) should only be carried out by a licensed contractor.

Licensed asbestos removal work is a significantly hazardous job because it involves higher risk asbestos-containing materials (ACMs). These materials are more likely to release larger quantities of asbestos fibres when being removed than lower risk materials (such as asbestos cement). As a result, workers who are employed in removing higher risk ACMs require specific training and should follow specific working practices. Workers should also use sophisticated respiratory protective equipment (RPE) and are legally required to be under regular medical surveillance. It is because of the hazardous nature of this work that a licence to do it is required from HSE.

There are some asbestos removal tasks, involving lower risk asbestos-containing materials that do not require a licence. This is because any exposure to asbestos fibres from this type of work is not expected to present a significant risk, provided that the correct precautions are taken. However, under the asbestos regulations that came into force in April 2012, there are now two categories of 'non-licensed' work, one of which, 'notifiable non-licensed work (NNLW)', has additional requirements for employers.

How should I dispose of asbestos waste?

Asbestos waste describes any asbestos products or materials that are ready to be disposed. This includes any contaminated building materials, dust, rubble, used tools that cannot be decontaminated, disposable PPE (personal protective equipment) and damp rags that have been used for cleaning. Asbestos waste must be placed in suitable packaging to prevent any fibres being released. This should be double wrapped and appropriately labelled. Standard practice is to use a red inner bag – marked up with asbestos warning labels – and a clear outer bag with appropriate hazard markings. Intact asbestos cement sheets and textured coatings that are firmly attached to a board should not be broken up into smaller pieces. These should instead be carefully double wrapped in suitable polythene sheeting (1000 gauge) and labelled.

Find out more about disposal of asbestos

What changed in the asbestos regulations in 2012?

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 came into force on 6 April 2012, updating previous asbestos regulations to take account of the European Commission's view that the UK had not fully implemented the EU Directive on exposure to asbestos (Directive 2009/148/EC).

In practice the changes are fairly limited. They mean that some types of non-licensed work with asbestos now have additional requirements – notification of work, medical surveillance and record keeping. All other requirements remain unchanged.

What is the law concerning asbestos in domestic properties?

The general duties in Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSW Act) apply to protect householders from any risks from work activities being carried out in their homes. Where work being done involves asbestos-containing materials then the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 will also apply, in particular:

  • regulation 11 (Prevention or reduction of exposure to asbestos)
  • regulation 15 (Arrangements to deal with accidents, incidents and emergencies)
  • regulation 16 (Duty to prevent or reduce the spread of asbestos

In owner-occupied domestic properties, the owners are not legally responsible for risks to contractors from asbestos, as the owners themselves are not engaged in any work activity.

I have just bought a property. Could it contain asbestos?

Asbestos may be part of any commercial or domestic building which was built or refurbished before the year 2000. Asbestos can typically still be found in any of the following:

  • asbestos cement products (pipes, flues, roofs etc)
  • lagging (on pipes and boilers etc)
  • water tanks and toilet cisterns
  • asbestos insulating board (AIB – which closely resembles typical plasterboard)
  • loose asbestos in ceiling and wall cavities
  • sprayed coatings on ceilings, walls and beams / columns
  • textured decorative coatings (commonly referred to as Artex)
  • floor tiles
  • textiles and composites
I think I may have asbestos in my home. What should I do?

Do not try to repair or remove any asbestos materials yourself if you have not had any training for non-licensed asbestos work. You can seek advice from an environmental health officer at your local authority/council

If you are sure (or strongly suspect) that your home contains asbestos materials then it is often best to leave them where they are – especially if they are in good condition and unlikely to get damaged. You should check the condition of the materials from time to time to make sure they haven't been damaged or started to deteriorate.

Slightly damaged asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) can sometimes be repaired by sealing or enclosing them. However, you should only attempt to do this if you have had the necessary training. Any badly-damaged asbestos material that is likely to become further damaged should be removed if it cannot be protected. Some materials (sprayed asbestos coatings, asbestos lagging / insulation or asbestos insulating board) should only be removed by a contractor licensed by HSE. Your local environmental health officer can provide advice on this.

If you are planning any DIY home improvements, repairs or maintenance – and intend to bring in any additional builders, maintenance workers or contractors – you should inform them of any asbestos materials in your home before they start work. This will help reduce the risks of any ACMs being disturbed. HSE strongly encourages the use of trained professionals to repair or remove ACMs. If you choose to carry out DIY repairs or remove damaged asbestos materials yourself, make sure you wear the right protective equipment and follow safe working methods.

In addition, please be aware that ACMs need to be legally disposed of as hazardous waste. This should not be mixed with normal household waste. You may be able to arrange to have it collected or there may be special facilities in your area you can use to dispose of it. Contact you local authority for information about asbestos and its disposal.

Can I sell an item that contains asbestos?

No. It is illegal to supply any article containing asbestos, whether for money, or free of charge.