Asbestos removal: Doing away with the devil in the wall

Celebrated as a miracle fibre in the 1920s and now recognised as a disease-causing agent, asbestos still sits in many walls. Learn everything you need to know about asbestos in the following blog post: What it is exactly, why it is so dangerous and what you should consider when removing it.


Craftsmen with tools during asbestos removal

Asbestos, the word seems to ring a bell. A building material that went down in folklore as both ultra-practical and insanely dangerous. And yes, it wears both caps. From a miracle fibre in the 1970s, its reputation has since plummeted to one of the number-one building pollutants and with good reason.

The use of asbestos in buildings boomed in the mid-20th century and the repercussions of this sorely mistaken move are still being felt to this day. Namely, despite its admirable structural properties, asbestos has since emerged as one of the substances most harmful to health. The mineral fibres of the material are fine enough to penetrate the respiratory tract of anyone in the vicinity when the material is processed or damaged and trigger anything from pneumonia to cancer. Many buildings from the heyday of asbestos remain intact to this today. Do you live in a property built between 1930 and 1980? If so, you may be surrounded by the insidious fibres yourself. Read on for how to recognise asbestos and how to proceed if this rightfully maligned material is actually in your walls and roofs.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos comes from the Greek term ‘asbestos’, which means ‘unquenchable or inextinguishable’ and applies to a group of natural mineral fibres that are processable into ultra-resistant building materials, synonymous with enormous tensile strength and general robustness. They are also extremely stable against acids and bases and can withstand temperatures of up to 1000°C. And if all that weren’t enough, they cost peanuts to produce. The perfect building material, in other words. And that’s what made it a go-to for the engineers of the early 20th century, of course. What they neglected to remember was the fragile human body.

Asbestosis, the term for chronic pneumonia caused by inhaling the miracle fibre, was discovered as early as 1900 and a proven link between long-term exposure and lung cancer emerged as early as 1970. Shockingly, however, it wasn’t until 1990 that the use of asbestos as a building material was banned in the EU and Switzerland.

Why is asbestos dangerous?

While asbestos is actually innocuous in its raw form, the real danger arises during processing, installation or renovation work. Every time the asbestos sheets or pipes are broken and cut, microscopic fibrous particles are released. And although inhaling airborne particles for those in construction is nothing new, workers dealing with asbestos are at far higher risk of long-term damage.

Once inhaled, the fibres lodge in the respiratory tract. With a surface area too tiny to be excreted by coughing, they are also too large to be broken down by the body. So the immune system defends itself against the foreign bodies, which we feel as inflammation. The ongoing inability to break down the fibres means this inflammation remains chronic and thus becomes the above-mentioned asbestosis. Large quantities of foreign bodies in the lungs for extended periods can trigger cell growths or tumours. In other words, asbestos can give you cancer. Fortunately, as mentioned, its use has been banned since 1990, which means we are only likely to come across the miracle fibre when older buildings are converted or demolished.

Identifying asbestos

When should you suspect asbestos?

Well, since the robust fibre has been banned for over 30 years, it can only be found and not manufactured. In other words, there is only a risk of asbestos in your home if your house was built between 1930 and 1980.  

Where is asbestos typically found?

  • Roof panels and insulation

  • Sewage and ventilation pipes

  • Façade cladding

  • Electrical appliances like cookers and ovens

  • Floor coverings

  • Insulation materials

SUVA's virtual asbestos house shows the typical places where asbestos can be found in a house.

What does asbestos look like?

Spotting asbestos with the naked eye is far from easy. Although the building material superficially resembles other materials, like cement or plaster, the crucial difference is its fibrous structure. However, this is actually only visible when it is too late. Untreated asbestos also has a characteristic greenish-greyish colour. In other words, if there are any open areas in a building structure that appear frayed or fibrous and match the colours mentioned, caution and immediately summoning professional help is your best bet!

Asbestos removal procedure

Before you pull out all the stops and get to work on your suspicions with goggles, gas mask and sledgehammer in place, consult a specialist to be on the safe side. They are best-placed to know whether and how to intervene. If the suspicion is confirmed, this is how you proceed to get rid of asbestos:

Step 1: Asbestos analysis

Experts use a pollutant analysis to determine whether your building fabric contains asbestos or other pollutants like PCP, PAH, KMF or heavy metals. Material samples are taken from your property, examined and the results are summarised in a report. Budget CHF 2,000-3,000 for the analysis and report.

Step 2: Clean-up plan

If the pollutant analysis is positive, the specialists will work with you to devise a detailed clean-up plan. It will be tailored around your needs to ensure your whole life is not turned upside down.

Step 3: Partitioning of the building sections

You have to seal off any affected areas of the house before the removal of the asbestos components can begin. And to prevent any of the dangerous suspended particles from escaping, some of the interior rooms have to be hermetically sealed off and before proceeding to work under a negative pressure vacuum. Safety measures like these can easily rack up costs in the region of several thousand Swiss francs, depending on the area.

Step 4: Asbestos removal

As soon as you’ve taken all safety precautions, removal of the harmful materials can begin.

Step 5: Asbestos disposal

Here, it’s normally the specialists themselves that handle the professional disposal of the pollutants. You can, however, handle the clean-up operation yourself (more on this in the following section). If so, it is crucial to ensure the structures from which you take the asbestos are professionally cleaned and the asbestos materials are disposed of in such a way that no pollutants are released. Recycling of materials containing asbestos is prohibited.

Can I carry out asbestos removal myself?

As a general rule, handling asbestos removal yourself is not prohibited. However - we strongly advise against unless you are a specialist in the field yourself. And even if you are, proceed only with the utmost caution!

You can find further details on how to handle asbestos removal on your own in this SUVA factsheet.

Asbestos removal costs

The costs of removing asbestos can vary considerably and depend mainly on the size of the affected areas and whether the pollutants are present inside or outside the building. In general, however, the following cost ranges are realistic:

  • Analysis and report: 2,000-3,000 CHF

  • Clean-up: around 40-50 CHF/m²

  • Travel flat rate: around 60-100 CHF

  • Removal of pollutants: around 200 CHF per tonne of material

  • Scaffolding may be necessary for work on a roof or façade, which generally costs around 8 CHF/m²

So even removing asbestos from smaller façade areas of 30m² can quickly cost around 5,000-8,000 CHF.

Progress and clever minds were the hallmark of the 20th century. Now, however, we see that some of those we venerated were actually undeserving and what we thought were advances were backward steps. The discovery of asbestos and hailing it as a miracle fibre was one such error. The process of remedying this remains our responsibility and that of future generations.