Anyone who has an old shed with an asbestos roof in the garden would do well to remove it quickly or replace it with a healthy roof. Knowledge Center Milieu Centraal warns that asbestos roofs that are at least 30 years old will start to weather and that harmful asbestos fibers are released as a result. The Association of Dutch Municipalities (VNG) speaks of a ‘major problem’ and calls on homeowners to take action.
This concerns hundreds, possibly thousands of sheds that were built up to 1994. Asbestos was used extensively before then because it was cheap and effective. Now that is no longer allowed. Asbestos is not dangerous when left untouched, but when it breaks down, it releases carcinogenic fibers. And that is now in danger of happening with many sheds. “The shed roofs are now 30 years or older, and that entails a high risk of weathering,” Milieu Centraal warns.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos fibers are so small that they can penetrate deep into the lungs when inhaled. Inhaled fibers can therefore cause various diseases, such as cancer in the lining of the lungs. There is no cure for this. Another disease caused by asbestos is asbestosis, a serious and chronic lung disease.
People who have worked with asbestos a lot and for a long time are particularly at risk. For others the risk is smaller, but it is still wise to take action quickly, says Milieu Centraal. “No one wants asbestos in their living environment,” says spokesperson Anna Beth Smeltekop. “Yet many people bury their heads in the sand. They dread the job, but it’s really not that bad.”
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What can you do?
In fact, residents are allowed to remove asbestos up to 35 square meters themselves. That costs about a few hundred euros. Residents are obliged to report this. Municipalities can help by placing a container for the disposal of the asbestos. Large sheds require the involvement of a recognized company. That can easily cost 2000 euros. Municipalities hope that this will happen soon. They fear an unnecessary amount of environmental impact. “Leaching of asbestos into soil, sewers and surface water must be prevented,” warns Cees den Bakker, spokesperson for the Association of Dutch Municipalities.
The Health Council estimated in 2010 that approximately 1,300 people die annually in the Netherlands from asbestos-related illness. These are people who have worked with asbestos during their working lives, usually in the 1970s. Experts do not want to play panic football, even with this campaign. “There is no new knowledge about the effects of weathering of asbestos roofs on public health, so it is still the case that the remediation proposed by Milieu Centraal will not prevent any asbestos victims,” says Ira Helsloot, professor of safety management at Radboud University Nijmegen.
Asbestos expert Jan van Willigenburg also emphasizes that there is no reason to panic. “If an asbestos fiber is occasionally released into the ambient air and can theoretically be inhaled, this is not necessarily a health risk.” Van Willigenburg, chairman of a knowledge center on asbestos, compares it to water. “Drinking small amounts is fine and even healthy. But if you ingest 10 liters of water in one go, this will lead to very serious health damage.”
In that sense, mesothelioma – a recognized and fatal asbestos disease – is typically an ‘occupational disease’, according to Van Willigenburg. According to the expert, it also says enough that residents are allowed to remove the asbestos themselves to a certain extent. “You could deduce from this that the government also estimates the health risk to be minimal when carrying out this work. Don’t be fooled by all kinds of wiseguys who say that every asbestos fiber can lead to a serious health risk.”
‘Asbestos causes sadness’
The Asbestos Victims Institute is enthusiastic about the campaign, because it informs residents in an accessible way how they can intervene safely and cheaply. “There is still a lot of asbestos present in the living environment. In the past, asbestos caused and still causes enormous misery and sadness,” says director Jan Warning. “Victims have usually come into contact with asbestos in the distant past, often at work and sometimes in their private lives.”
The rate at which asbestos is removed from roofs has decreased significantly since mid-2019. This is because the subsidy scheme for the removal of asbestos roofs ended in December 2018. In addition, the bill that would ban asbestos roofs has failed in the Senate. At the current pace, it will take more than ten years before the last asbestos in Dutch roofs is removed, the cabinet reported in 2021. The cabinet assumes that around 7 million square meters will be removed every year.
Of the Week of the Asbestos-Free Barn, which starts on Monday, municipalities and the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management hope to accelerate this process. Milieu Centraal has also developed a step-by-step plan so that anyone with a shed roof containing asbestos can get started safely. “Together we can make our living environment healthier and even beautify it by choosing sustainable options such as green roofs,” Smeltekop concludes.
It will not be mandatory to remove asbestos. The law for this failed in the Senate a few years ago. Vereniging Eigen Huis is also against such an obligation without there being measures to help homeowners. She thinks the voluntary removal of asbestos roofs on sheds is a good thing. “It is recommended that asbestos-containing material be carefully removed and disposed of,” the organization reports.
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