Asbestos – Is it a Problem?

We put this question to Ian Morris, a Chartered Building Surveyor who divides his time between working in the UK and in south west France.

Anyone selling a house built in France before July 1997 is legally obliged to arrange for the production of a constat (report) stating whether or not there are materials or products in the building that are likely to contain amiante (asbestos). The constat must be produced by a registered technician having the required professional insurance, and must define the location and condition of any such materials and products. It must be provided prior to the compromis stage. The law defines the parts of the building, and the building components, that have to be covered by the constat: These include walls and wallcoverings, floors, ceilings, pipes and insulation – but not roofs, or other external components. A vendor who fails to provide a constat risks a fine of 1,500€, or 7,500€ if they are a company.

But is asbestos dangerous?
Asbestos is not “poisonous” in the normal sense of the word. It is a natural mineral whose fibres have been successfully used in a variety of building materials for many years, mainly for durability and heat resistance, and there are three main types.

There is no doubt that loose, airborne, fibres from “blue” asbestos (Crocidolite) and “brown” asbestos (Amosite) can, if inhaled, lead to respiratory problems and cancers including mesothelioma – a relatively rare form of cancer which can take 10 to 50 years (or even longer) to develop. However, it is probably fair to say that almost all cases of asbestos-related diseases have been contracted by those unfortunate enough to have worked in the asbestos industry.

The third type, known as “white” asbestos (Chrysotile), is a wholly different kind of chemical and has not been proved to cause damage to health. The French government does not differentiate between the three types of asbestos, but until about a year ago the British government classified white asbestos differently from the other two. However, following some lobbying and a parliamentary debate (a move said to have been fostered by two French and Belgian multinational companies that dominate the market in selling asbestos substitutes) white asbestos is now treated in Britain in the same way as blue and brown asbestos.

Where in the home is asbestos found ?
Asbestos has only ever been used in building materials as a constituent, mixed with cement, plaster, paint, etc., in varying proportions. In French houses, just as in private houses in the UK, the most common occurrence is in the form of fibrociment (asbestos-cement) products such as flue pipes, drainage pipes and wall panels (very often used in France as doublage to conceal damp walls), and as gutters and downpipes, roofing sheets (usually corrugated) and artificial roof slates. These asbestos-cement products, which are hard, mostly grey/white in colour, and seldom more than 6mm thick, generally contain little more than 10% “white” asbestos. You will sometimes hear an artisan refer to these materials as everite; this is not the name of the material but is the name of one of the principal manufacturers.

Older type “thermoplastic” floor tiles might contain 5% or less asbestos fibres. Some coatings that have been used to repair or decorate walls and ceilings can have a much higher asbestos content. Less likely to be found in private houses are asbestos-based insulating boards and sprayed asbestos (used mainly for fire-protection of steel beams), asbestos-based panels used in suspended ceilings, and fibrous pipe insulation – which generally has a fairly high, usually “blue”, asbestos content.

When to be concerned, and what to do.
In general, there is no abnormal health risk from the simple presence of materials containing asbestos if they are left alone and undamaged. If they are sound, undamaged and not releasing dust or fibres they should not be disturbed: Asbestos-cement products can be sealed with an alkali-resistant primer or coating, but use emulsion paint for asbestos-based insulating board. Check their condition every two or three years.

Suitable precautions should be taken when cutting or working with asbestos-based materials, to prevent inhalation of dust or fibres. If you want to remove asbestos-cement materials it is usual practice to wet the surfaces first, and to remove them in one piece wherever possible – without breaking them, to ensure there is no release of dust or loose fibres.

Asbestos-based products that have disintegrated with age, especially fibrous pipe insulation, should not be interfered with but must be removed under controlled conditions by a specialist asbestos removal contractor: This work can prove quite expensive. But beware of contractors who tell you that asbestos-cement materials pose a serious health risk – and who demand large sums for their removal.

Irrespective of the Constat de recherche d’amiante (that the vendor will be required to commission if the property was built before July 1997), a properly-qualified surveyor that you may decide to employ, to carry out a pre-purchase survey for you, should be able to identify building materials that are likely to incorporate asbestos, and should be able to advise you on what action to take, if any.

This article appeared in French Property News, November 2002

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