‘Our wallpaper might contain asbestos. Our builder says we should just paint over it’

Property Clinic: The possible presence of asbestos is a bit worrying to us, particularly as parents of young children

We’ve just bought a beautiful older home that we’re planning to renovate. When we had the building survey done, our surveyor noted potential asbestos in the walls in our hallway. The walls are papered, and the builder we have hired has recommended we just paint over the wallpaper instead of treating walls for asbestos. The presence of the asbestos is a bit worrying to us, particularly as parents of young children. Is it safe to try to leave it undisturbed and paint over wallpaper or would you recommend having an asbestos team remove it? Certainly, painting over would be better for our budget, but we do want to make sure we don’t have issues down the line. Your advice would be a huge help.

Congratulations on the purchase of your new home, writes Andrew O’Gorman. Older properties have character, but they also can potentially contain harmful materials such as asbestos. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral made up of long, thin fibres which can be dangerous if inhaled as dust.

There are a number of regulated types of asbestos, but the following three types were commonly used in Ireland:

  • Crocidolite, often referred to as blue asbestos
  • Amosite, often referred to as brown asbestos
  • Chrysotile, often referred to as white asbestos

The following is a brief list of materials where asbestos fibres formed part of the material composition, and which are commonly found in older residential properties.

  1. Roof slates, roof sheeting, flat roof felts, etc
  2. Surface water gutters and downpipes
  3. External wall cladding
  4. Lagging to plumbing pipes, gaskets, etc
  5. Electrical installations
  6. Floor coverings and adhesives
  7. Internal wall panelling (this could be what you have)
  8. Ceiling linings and finishes (textured plaster and finishes, etc)
  9. Sanitary ware installations
  10. Fire-proofing materials

Asbestos-containing materials pose a health and safety risk when they are disturbed (for example when removing asbestos roof sheeting), with asbestos fibres being released. When asbestos fibres become airborne, they can be inhaled and cause serious health diseases.

Your building surveyor was professional in identifying the potential presence of asbestos-based materials in the wall linings.

To resolve your situation, you could do what your builder advised and cover over the walls with paper. However, you are potentially concealing a very harmful material and future tradespersons could unknowingly carry out works on the wall, so exposing themselves to the material, along with occupants of the house.

Given your surveyor is of the opinion that your home contains possible asbestos in the wall linings and potentially elsewhere, I recommend you consider having an asbestos survey carried out on the property to identify the presence and location of asbestos-based materials in the property (roof coverings, wall linings, floor coverings and so on). You will then be aware of the extent and location of asbestos materials in your home and whether the wall linings in the hallway contain asbestos fibres.

Depending on the condition of the asbestos-based wall linings in the hallway, you could consider the following:

  • If the wall linings are in good condition and intact, you could consider encapsulating the linings and newly papering the wall, without interfering with the asbestos linings. However, you will need to maintain a register of where the asbestos materials are present in your home for future trades people. And remember at some point in the future you will have to remove these asbestos wall linings.
  • Remove the asbestos-based wall linings. This would be my recommendation. With this solution, the harmful asbestos materials are removed for good and you can rest easy in the knowledge that no asbestos material are present.

Should you consider removing the asbestos-based materials from your home, you will need to engage a professional asbestos removal contractor who will call to your home and remove the material under controlled conditions. On completion of the works, you should not return to your home until such time as an air-monitoring report is issued, as this will confirm that no harmful asbestos fibres are present in the air.

Andrew O’Gorman is a chartered building surveyor and member of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland