Asbestos in Commercial Buildings: Risks and Mitigation Strategies

Last Updated on June 1, 2023 by max

Asbestos, a term often associated with danger in our minds, was once hailed as a miracle material in the construction industry due to its resistance to heat, fire, and many chemicals. This naturally occurring mineral fibre was extensively used in commercial buildings throughout much of the 20th century, woven into fabrics or mixed in cement due to its desirable properties.

However, while asbestos was making its way into the heart of numerous buildings, from insulation to floor tiles, and roofing to wall coverings, scientific research began revealing its dark side. This ‘magic’ mineral turned out to be a silent and deadly health hazard. When asbestos-containing materials are damaged or disturbed, tiny fibres are released into the air. When these fibres are inhaled, they can cause serious diseases, such as asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs or the lining of the abdominal cavity.

This blog will explore the significance of this pervasive issue in detail, aiming to provide valuable insights about the risks associated with asbestos in commercial buildings and potential strategies for its identification, management, and mitigation. Our objective is to equip building owners, managers, and occupants with the necessary knowledge to ensure healthier, safer spaces.

Why Asbestos was Used in Buildings

Asbestos is a family of six naturally occurring minerals composed of flexible, heat-resistant fibres. Given its particular characteristics, it’s no surprise that asbestos became widely adopted in the construction industry. Let’s delve deeper into why asbestos was so prevalent in commercial buildings.

  1. Fire Resistance: One of the most striking qualities of asbestos is its fire resistance. Asbestos does not burn easily; instead, it acts as an effective insulator against heat, providing exceptional fire protection. This quality made it desirable for use in various applications, including fire doors and fire retardants.
  2. Durability: Asbestos is a robust material that can withstand extensive wear and tear and adverse weather conditions. It was frequently used to give additional strength to other construction materials such as concrete, plastics, and asphalt.
  3. Insulation Properties: Asbestos is an excellent thermal and electrical insulator. This led to its widespread use in heating and electrical systems and as insulation in walls, floors, and ceilings.
  4. Cost-effectiveness: Asbestos was relatively cheap to mine and process, making it an attractive, cost-effective choice for construction materials.
  5. Sound Absorption: Asbestos has good sound absorption qualities, which made it a practical choice for ceiling tiles and acoustic products in commercial buildings.

Common building materials that historically contained asbestos include, but are not limited to:

Despite its numerous beneficial properties, the health risks posed by asbestos have led to restrictions and bans on its use in many countries. Nonetheless, many commercial buildings erected before these bans are still standing today and may pose a potential health risk.

Identifying Asbestos in Commercial Buildings

Asbestos is often concealed within the structure of a building, making it challenging for the untrained eye to identify. The fibres are microscopic and cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted. However, it is crucial to be aware of where it might be located and what it might look like to mitigate potential risks. Here are some tips for identifying asbestos in commercial buildings:

  1. Understand Common Asbestos Locations: Asbestos was used in a multitude of materials and could be anywhere, from roof shingles and insulation to floor tiles and pipe insulation. It can also be found in textured paints, patching compounds, and the adhesives used for installing floor tiles.
  2. Age of the Building: Generally, if a building was constructed or renovated before the 1980s (this may vary by country), there is a higher likelihood it contains asbestos. This timeframe is not definitive, but it can be used as a reference.
  3. Appearance of Materials: Asbestos-containing materials can take various forms. For instance, insulation containing asbestos often has a fluffy, greyish-white appearance. Asbestos cement is often grey and hard with a layered appearance. Asbestos floor tiles are typically older, 9-inch or 12-inch squares.
  4. Signs of Wear or Damage: Damaged materials may increase the risk of asbestos exposure. Look for signs of ageing, water damage, abrasion, or other types of physical damage.
  5. Professional Testing: If you suspect that a material contains asbestos, the safest action is to leave it alone and contact a professional asbestos inspector. They can safely take a sample of the material and have it tested in a laboratory. It’s critical not to disturb the material yourself, as this could release asbestos fibres into the air.

Asbestos Management Strategies

Managing asbestos in commercial buildings is a significant responsibility. In many regions, it’s not only a moral obligation to ensure the safety of occupants but also a legal one. Here are key strategies for effective asbestos management:

Develop an Asbestos Management Plan: The first step in managing asbestos is to create an asbestos management plan (AMP). This is a documented plan detailing where asbestos or suspected asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) are located, their condition, and how they are to be managed. The AMP should also include procedures for regular inspections and maintenance and steps to take in case of disturbance or emergency. A competent person with suitable training, such as an asbestos surveyor or consultant, should be involved in developing the plan.

Regular Asbestos Surveys and Risk Assessments: A critical part of any AMP is the regular undertaking of asbestos surveys. These surveys identify the location, amount, and condition of any asbestos or ACMs within the building. Once ACMs are identified, risk assessments are needed to determine the risk they pose. This should include considering factors like the likelihood of people disturbing it and the overall condition of the material.

Training for Staff: Education is an essential component of asbestos management. Anyone who may come into contact with asbestos or ACMs during their work should receive appropriate asbestos awareness training. This training should include information on recognizing asbestos, the health risks associated with exposure, and the actions to take if they suspect they’ve encountered asbestos.

Conclusion

Asbestos in commercial buildings continues to pose a significant health risk, despite being phased out of construction materials in many countries. Given the extensive past use of asbestos, it is common in many older buildings, and its presence can lead to serious health complications including asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.

However, through proper identification, responsible management, and appropriate mitigation strategies, the risks posed by asbestos can be significantly reduced. A robust Asbestos Management Plan (AMP) is the cornerstone of this process, providing a blueprint for the ongoing management and potential removal of asbestos.

Beyond being a regulatory requirement in many jurisdictions, responsible asbestos management is a moral imperative. The health and safety of building occupants should always be a priority. By remaining vigilant, informed, and proactive, building owners and managers can help protect these individuals and provide a safe environment for all.

Published May 25, 2023

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