What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a name given to many different naturally occurring minerals, made up of long thin fibres, which can be dangerous if they are inhaled as dust.

Until 1999, asbestos was commonly used in building materials, mainly for insulation and fireproofing, and in some consumer goods. However, it is now illegal to place asbestos or asbestos-containing products on the market.

So, for example, if you are having a roof removed by specialists that contains asbestos, the material must be disposed of and cannot be re-used in any way.

Where is asbestos found?

Asbestos can be found in any old building which was built or refurbished before 2000. It was commonly used as a means of insulating and fireproofing, but it was also used in a variety of different formats. As a result, it can be found in building materials used for:

  • Flooring
  • Walls
  • Ceilings
  • Roofs
  • Heating systems and equipment

What happens if I am exposed to asbestos?

Being exposed to asbestos can cause different health issues. Many of these can take between 15-60 years to develop. These include an increased risk of:

  • Lung cancer
  • Asbestosis (scarring of the lung tissue)
  • Mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of the chest and the lining of the abdominal cavity)
  • Pleural plagues/effusions

How to deal with asbestos

If you think that a material may contain asbestos, or if you are arranging to have building work done on your home, you should get advice from a specialist asbestos monitoring/surveying company. This will help you identify whether asbestos is present and decide what to do next. You should never handle, disturb or remove asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) yourself.

Asbestos does not always have to be removed and disposed of. If the asbestos is in good condition and there is no disturbance or damage to it, it won’t cause any harm as the fibres will not be released. Sometimes, it can be safer to maintain it rather than disturbing the asbestos by removing it. This decision should be based on a risk assessment, carried out by a specialist.

If asbestos is to be repaired and maintained, this must be done safely and by a specialist. Any remaining material should be clearly labelled for asbestos and its location should be clearly marked on the plans of the building for future reference.

Removing asbestos is a complex procedure and must only be done by a specialist contractor. Asbestos waste is hazardous and improper removal will increase the risk of fibre inhalation. There are detailed rules about how the waste should be wrapped, labelled, and disposed of.

You can find more information on asbestos on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website and also in these practical guidelines from the Health and Safety Authority (pdf).

Protecting yourself or your employees from asbestos in work

There are regulations in place protecting workers from risks related to asbestos exposure at work. They apply to all places of work and all sectors of work where asbestos-containing materials may be present, and to everyone who may be at risk from exposure when at work.

The Health and Safety Authority (HSA) enforces these regulations. While the HSA deals specifically with worker protection and the industrial sector, if you are having work done in your home then it can be deemed a workplace, and people working there must get the required level of protection for them to do their work safely.

What is the exposure limit for asbestos?

The maximum level of daily exposure to which workers may be exposed at a workplace is defined in law. This exposure limit is 0.1 fibres per cm3 for all types of asbestos (or 100 fibres per litre of air).

If planned asbestos–related work could expose you or other workers to a higher concentration of asbestos fibres in the air, your employer must submit a written notification to the HSA 14 days before starting any work.

Employers who are responsible for people working in an environment with possible asbestos must act to protect their employees’ health. The steps to be taken include:

  • Identify any asbestos before work begins and plan the work to disturb them as little as possible
  • Prepare a written risk assessment and a written plan of work or method statement
  • Tell employees the results of any measurement of asbestos dust in the air in their work area
  • Prevent employees' exposure to asbestos or do everything possible to keep the amount of asbestos in the air to a minimum
  • Use specialist contractors for any work that involves significant risk of exposure – these specialists must use suitable controls, such as dust extractors and decontamination units
  • Provide suitable protective gear for the type of work and the level of asbestos in the air
  • Provide information, instruction and training, so that employees know what risks are involved and what precautions they should take
  • Properly dispose of any waste that contains asbestos

You can find detailed information and advice in the HSA’s practical guidelines (pdf) on how to manage and contain asbestos in workplaces.

The HSA has also published an Asbestos Information Sheet, aimed at employees and safety representatives, as well as employers.

Site inspections

The HSA can inspect sites where work with asbestos is being carried out. Inspectors can visit a site without giving notice and they must be given full access to all areas of that site to ensure that regulations are being met.

The HSA’s inspectors can close down a site immediately if they believe that dangerous practices are in place. They can place a prohibition notice on the site or specific operation. This notice remains in place until the problem has been fixed.

Prohibition notices of dangerous work

A prohibition notice is a legal order to stop specific work because of the high level of perceived danger it is causing. If you don’t take action and don’t meet the requirements outlined in a prohibition notice, the HSA can prosecute you in court.

If you are convicted of an offence under the Asbestos Regulations, the court can fine you. The court can also order you to take the necessary steps to fix the situation within a specific deadline. It is an offence if you don’t follow these steps.

Local authorities are responsible for investigating incidents of air and water pollution, which includes incorrect disposal of asbestos. They can prosecute infringements of the Air Pollution Act 1987 and the Local Government (Water Pollution) Act 1977. Anyone who is found to be in breach of this legislation is guilty of an offence.

Useful contacts

You can find lists of asbestos specialists and contractors on the websites of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Health and Safety Authority.

The Environmental Protection Agency also have a useful document on Best practice guidance for handling asbestos (pdf).

To make sure that a waste collection company is licensed to handle asbestos waste, check with the National Waste Collection Permit Office.

If your concerns relate to a workplace or work activity, contact the Health and Safety Authority.

If you are concerned about asbestos in public areas, contact the Environmental Officer in your local authority.

Contact the Department of Education with any concerns about the presence of asbestos in schools.

The Office of Public Works is responsible for dealing with asbestos in other State buildings.

Page edited: 6 February 2024