Beware Asbestos in U.K. and European Conversions

Graham Lomax Comments
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Asbestos material in buildings is still a concern in the United Kingdom and Europe. For those anticipating purchasing a building for conversion into self-storage, here is the low down on what to anticipate.

The potentially hazardous material that may be present in your new facility will vary depending on the age of the building. If your facility is a new build, your only real problems will likely be existing ground contamination, which any competent initial survey will uncover. It is during a conversion that hazardous material is more likely to cause problems.

Though a thorough survey should detect the presence of material such as asbestos, it may not indicate the full extent, locations or type of contamination. If hazardous materials are discovered during initial negotiations for the building, it is possible to obtain a specialist asbestos surveyors report on the extent of the material, its condition and the approximate cost of removal.

Although construction using blue (amosite) and brown (crocidolite) asbestos has been banned in the United Kingdom since 1985, white (chrysotile) asbestos was still being used until November 1999, when asbestos was banned in the country completely. It will be banned in all European countries by 2005.

Many thousands of buildings, especially those built in the 1960s and 1970s, contained large amounts of asbestos from roofing material, insulation material, pipe lagging, ceiling panels, etc. It is currently not illegal in the United Kingdom to have a building that contains asbestos material, so many older buildings you may be looking to convert may well have it.

If in sound condition, asbestos is not dangerous. It is only if the fibers become exposed that they are likely to become airborne and a real health hazard to everyone in the building. Removal of asbestos material can become very expensive and must only be carried out by a fully licenced specialist contractor. It generally requires the entire affected area be completely sealed off or enclosed in a type of tent kept under negative pressure to ensure no fibers escape.

All waste is collected in specialized containers and disposed of at hazardous-waste sites. All of the operatives performing asbestos removal must be protected by specialized breathing apparatus and coveralls. The potential dangers to removal contractors and specialized equipment—including decontamination facilities outside the affected areas for workers—contribute to the high cost of asbestos removal.

On Dec. 16, a new regulation to manage asbestos was added to the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations (CAWR). It applies to you if you have maintenance responsibilities for nondomestic premises or you own the building. The duty requires you to manage the risk from asbestos by:

  • Finding out if there is any asbestos in the premises, as well as its amount and condition.
  • Presumimg materials contain asbestos, unless you have strong evidence they do not.
  • Making and keeping an up-to-date record of the location and condition of all asbestos-containing material.
  • Assessing the risk from the material.
  • Preparing a risk-management plan.
  • Taking the steps to put the plan into action.
  • Reviewing and monitoring the plan.

Because there could be as many as half a million non-domestic premises in the United Kingdom that contain asbestos, there is an 18-month lead-in period for the regulation. It is recommended the risk-management process be started immediately. Many buildings with asbestos-containing materials function normally without any problems or additional expense beyond routine maintenance and repairs. But be aware, asbestos is a material with very stringent legislation for which owners are responsible.

Graham Lomax is a founding director of Rabco Europe Ltd., based in Essex, England. Rabco Europe opened in August 2001 to expand The Rabco Corp.'s Orlando, Fla.-based operation into the European market. For more information, visit www.rabcoeurope.com.

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