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August 2015

Question

I have recently been asked to look after the property of an elderly neighbour who has been in hospital for some time. The house is an old property that was built in the 1950s or 1960s, and as I understand it my neighbour moved in 20 years ago.

The house was unoccupied for some time before I agreed to look after it, and it appears a leak has caused the bathroom ceiling to collapse. I have heard a lot of terrible things about asbestos and I am wondering if the ceiling was made from material containing asbestos.

The ceiling is a normal plaster ceiling and as I understand it there was no lagging in the attic when they moved in. I have heard this may indicate an increased likelihood that the plasterboards are made from asbestos insulating board.

Is this true and how can I remedy the problem?

Answer

Many houses in the 1950s have asbestos ceilings. This is often fairly easy to distinguish, as typically the asbestos ceilings have strips over the joints.

In some cases there are no such strips and it is not possible to visually determine the difference between an asbestos ceiling and a plasterboard-type ceiling from below, as the ceilings will have been painted or papered over the years. But it is relatively easy for an experienced surveyor to establish this from above, say from within the attic, and a competent surveyor would always check this as part of a prepurchase building survey.

Clearly it is preferable not to have asbestos-based ceilings, but this is not necessarily a problem and it really only becomes a problem in the event of interference with the ceiling, eg drilling holes through this for services. Notwithstanding that, the perception of having an asbestos ceiling is not good, and this in itself can give rise to a devaluing effect on the property. Thus plans should ultimately be made for having the asbestos ceilings removed or replaced.

Significant health-and-safety concerns and asbestos regulations need to be followed in order to ensure the safe handling and disposal of the asbestos-based materials, and there is legislation governing this.

In your particular case, I note you say the ceiling is a normal plaster ceiling, and if this is the case, the ceiling itself will not contain any asbestos.

In this respect, asbestos ceilings are made from an asbestos-based lining and not from a plaster/plasterboard material. While it is also possible to have some asbestos-based insulation materials in buildings, this would be most unusual in a typical 1950s/1960s dwelling house and thus the risk of this is low.

Accordingly, from what you have described, it is unlikely that the ceilings are asbestos-based, however this could only be verified by an on-site inspection, and your local chartered building surveyor will be able to offer more specific advice on this.

Val O’Brien is a chartered building surveyor and a member of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland.

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