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Asbestos: the risk of cancer can lurk in any wall

Asbestos removal - isn't that something for public buildings from the 1970s? Right! But by no means only. The truth is: Asbestos fibers can also hide in undreamt-of places - where they can also hardly be seen.

At the beginning of November 2018, the Association of German Engineers (VDI) therefore adopted a new, stricter renovation guideline. It stipulates that companies must always test building materials for asbestos in suspected cases. This is intended to protect the workers, but also to prevent asbestos-contaminated construction waste from getting back undetected into recycling cycles and thus into new building materials.

In April 2020, the Federal Environment Agency published guidelines for building owners on how to proceed with asbestos exploration and the preparation of work in older buildings.

Be careful when renovating 

Even with a simple renovation in your own home, dangerous fiber concentrations can very quickly find their way into the air you breathe. Would you like a new window? Should the bathroom be renovated? Are there any electrical lines to be laid? Should new parquet be in the room? Basically, it is better to think about asbestos first!

"Every specialist knows corrugated asbestos sheets, as they are still to be found on a number of roof coverings today. They can be easily identified by anyone who is only halfway trained," says Frank Jansen from the VDI. It's not always that simple, however.

More about asbestos: Risk of cancer in baby powder

Plasters, tile adhesives, fillers

After all, who suspects that the asbestos can also hide in the tile adhesive under the old tiles in the bathroom, in the plaster on the wall, in the grouted joints on the plasterboard ceiling or in and under the old floor covering? Unfortunately hardly anyone - not even many skilled workers, the civil engineer Jansen points out.

It wasn't until a good ten years ago that experts became aware that asbestos fibers had been mixed in with many tile adhesives, fillers and plasters for decades.

They only make up a small proportion there. However, if someone works on such a wall with a grinding machine - for example to lay new tiles - the fibers are released into the air in a life-threatening high concentration.

The dust that arises from such work is so fine that it penetrates everything. If it contains asbestos fibers, a small percentage is enough to seriously damage the lungs.

  • Asbestos - an often invisible hazard

    A natural rock

    Asbestos is a collective name for various naturally occurring silicate minerals. These include grunerite, anthophyllite, actinolite and chrysotile. The fibrous material was popular both in construction and in industry because of its durability, fire resistance and because it was easy to process in cement.

  • Asbestos - an often invisible hazard

    Tiny fibers under the electron microscope

    Typical of asbestos are its tiny fibers, some of which are only three micrometers thick. Here is a chrysotile sample. These fibers are insoluble and may therefore stay in the lungs for a very long time. There they can still cause cancer after decades.

  • Asbestos - an often invisible hazard

    Do not touch!

    Corrugated asbestos must not be sawed, cut, drilled, sanded or broken. As long as you don't touch it, there is no risk of fibers being released into the air. But even cleaning is taboo: Anyone who tries to remove the moss growth with a high-pressure cleaner is already committing outrage on the environment and endangering their own health.

  • Asbestos - an often invisible hazard

    Nothing for the bulky waste

    A flower box made of fiber cement, also called Eternit or asbestos cement. Cement and asbestos combine here to form a building material that is stable but also poisonous. This box can still be planted. However, care should be taken when working with the shovel and rake so as not to scratch the vessel. Whoever wants to get rid of it has to dispose of it as hazardous waste.

  • Asbestos - an often invisible hazard

    Toxic floor covering

    Floor-flex panels of this type can be found in many residential buildings today. Almost all of them contain asbestos. Here, too, only a laboratory sample can provide security. So don't just pluck it out and throw it in the trash. Often such floor coverings are also attached with asbestos-containing adhesive. Caution, do not grind yourself!

  • Asbestos - an often invisible hazard

    Take care when sanding the floor

    Asbestos-containing materials are often found under the old floor coverings. If you come across black, bituminous adhesive under Floor-Flex panels, you should exercise particular caution. It almost always contains asbestos. Under no circumstances should you grind yourself!

  • Asbestos - an often invisible hazard

    Clogged drain - looking for a specialist company

    A clogged drainpipe was repaired here. With these asbestos-cement pipes, this is no job for a simple plumber. In this case, the strict occupational health and safety regulations for asbestos removal must be adhered to because the pipes have to be cut.

  • Asbestos - an often invisible hazard

    Danger area car workshop

    Up until 1989, brake linings in cars also contained asbestos - in high concentrations. It is possible that some of these brake pads are still installed in old cars today. The fibers are released into the ambient air when braking. Car mechanics who change the brake pads and then clean the brakes with air pressure are particularly at risk. This is how many fibers end up in the workshop air, which is life-threatening.

  • Asbestos - an often invisible hazard

    Chic collector's item - or hazardous waste?

    More like a case for hazardous waste. Under no circumstances should you use an older hair dryer - not even one from the 1970s. What does a hair dryer have to do with asbestos? The fabric is extremely heat-resistant and would therefore be used as thermal protection in the manufacture of this ancient device.

  • Asbestos - an often invisible hazard

    Vintage design is better than vintage junk

    It may be on the rise again, but if you want to eat your toast from such an elegant toaster, you better go for a new one with a retro look. This at least ensures that the supports for the heating wires are not made of asbestos. A device like this has no place in the antiques cupboard when it is not in use.

    Author: Fabian Schmidt

Many craftsmen do not know the danger

Even Jansen, who in 2015 published a discussion paper on the problem with the VDI and the General Association for Pollutant Restoration, was initially not even aware of the extent of the asbestos contamination: "I did an apprenticeship as a tiler before studying came into contact with the topic, I thought at first: Ouch! "

In principle, the danger can be found in any building that was erected before the turn of the millennium. "In addition, there is no house in which something has not even been repaired somewhere," Jansen points out. The findings of the discussion paper have now also been incorporated into the new guideline.

Asbestos-related lung cancer was recognized as an occupational disease in Germany as early as 1942, but it was not until 1995 that the substance was banned in Germany and Europe-wide in 2005. That is why it took so long for experts to become aware of the less visible asbestos building materials.

Fatal even decades later

"The occupational safety officers first looked at the asbestos, which was obviously and particularly frequently used in building materials or other products," remembers Thomas Kuhlbusch, group leader of the hazardous substance management group at the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

"These were Eternit panels, facade cladding, roofs that were built with asbestos materials and also fire protection cardboard and textiles. Initially, products in which only small amounts of asbestos were processed or in which the asbestos was not visible at all were less in the foreground."

It usually takes a long time for workers who have been exposed to asbestos dust to fall ill. "We now have deaths from asbestos in people who were exposed to the substance 40 years ago," says Kuhlbusch. The tiny fibers persist in the alveoli for a very long time. They are not broken down and can cause inflammation even after decades. "Asbestos is still a common cause of work-related illnesses and deaths," says Kuhlbusch.

Asbestos has been banned in Europe since 2005. In Asia in particular, however, the material is still widely used today.

As a craftsman, tenant or property owner, it is above all important to know how to recognize and deal with asbestos, says the chemist Kuhlbusch. Dramatizing the problem does not help.

How high is the background load really?

Asbestos occurs naturally in the environment as a mineral and can be found everywhere in the air. "Studies show that there are 75 to 130 fibers per cubic meter of air," explains Kuhlbusch. We all breathe in these fibers all the time. But that's not why everyone gets lung cancer.

Stephan Baumann, pollutant expert at BAFOB from Switzerland, however, expresses doubts about the assumed natural background pollution. He emphasizes that measurements that his company carries out after the asbestos removal in Switzerland has been completed do not show such high background levels. "About 90-95 percent of the measurements are completely without fibers," the toxicologist and building physicist wrote to us. With the measurement method used, one fiber found corresponds to a load of 85 fibers per cubic meter of air.

It is possible that a measured background pollution in the outside air also originates from car and train traffic. Until the late 1980s, brake linings contained high asbestos levels of between 50 and 90 percent. In the past, high fiber concentrations could therefore be measured, especially at intersections where many cars brake. Although brake pads containing asbestos are banned in the EU today, it cannot be ruled out that there are still some banned brake pads on the market.

No reason to panic

It is said that a single asbestos fiber is enough to cause cancer. But that doesn't mean that every fiber inhaled inevitably leads to cancer.

Kuhlbusch compares it to a huge wall with a thin water pipe running through it: "If I hammer a nail into the wall, what is the probability that I will hit the water pipe?"

The risk of cancer naturally increases with the concentration of fibers in the air and the length of time someone is exposed to the substance.

That means: A low exposure does not mean a death sentence. But the less you come into contact with asbestos, the better. Whoever recognizes it can easily avoid it. And with the right measures - such as using devices that suck in the dangerous dust - the risk can be effectively reduced.

Editor's note: This article has been updated several times since it was first published due to the publication of new guidelines and guidelines.

  • Palast der Republik: Demolition of a GDR monument

    Landmark of the GDR

    The Palace of the Republic, the prestige project of the GDR, was opened on April 23, 1976 after 32 months of construction. In the building with the golden-brown mirror panes, not only the People's Chamber of the GDR met, but rock concerts, theater performances and fashion shows were also held here. With its foyers, restaurants and the large hall for events, the building was considered a cultural palace.

  • Palast der Republik: Demolition of a GDR monument

    Palazzo Prozzo

    Because of its lavish lighting and ostentatious furnishings, the Palace of the Republic was also known as "Palazzo Prozzo" or "Erich's lamp shop" - an allusion to Erich Honecker, then General Secretary of the Central Committee of the SED. In 1990, after only 14 years of use, the building was closed by the GDR's first freely elected People's Chamber. The reason: toxic spray asbestos.

  • Palast der Republik: Demolition of a GDR monument

    The palace square

    On January 19, 2006, the German Bundestag decided to demolish the palace for the third and last time after 2002 and 2003. He spoke out in favor of setting up a new cultural forum in the heart of Berlin.

  • Palast der Republik: Demolition of a GDR monument


    The laborious asbestos removal delayed the demolition of the building again and again. Originally it was supposed to disappear at the beginning of 2007, this schedule could not be kept. In the end, the demolition had accumulated additional costs in the tens of millions.

  • Palast der Republik: Demolition of a GDR monument

    Ravages of time

    After the palace was closed in 1990, the building was gutted so that only a shell remained. In spring 2006, the actual demolition of the building began. A total of 500 tons of glass, 20,000 tons of steel and 56,000 tons of concrete had to be removed.

  • Palast der Republik: Demolition of a GDR monument

    Demolition in installments

    The construction took longer to remove than its 32 months to erect. The last part of the building was demolished at the end of 2008. Then the concrete tub of the palace had to be filled with 100,000 cubic meters of sand. Otherwise the Berlin Cathedral could have been tilted on the opposite side.

  • Palast der Republik: Demolition of a GDR monument

    Controversial debate

    The demolition of the Palace of the Republic and the reconstruction of the historic Berlin City Palace, which was founded in the same location in 1443 and stood there until 1950, has been a dispute for years. What sign would that set? Does this mean that Germany is erasing a piece of its history?

  • Palast der Republik: Demolition of a GDR monument

    Humboldt box

    Immediately after the Palace of the Republic was demolished, the area was planted with greenery. The Humboldt Box was created in 2011 and existed until December 2018. Local Berliners and visitors were able to find out about the plans for the City Palace and the Humboldt Forum here. Models and interactive exhibitions illustrated the building projects on the site.

  • Palast der Republik: Demolition of a GDR monument

    New lock

    The construction, which is expected to cost around 590 million euros in total, has now been largely completed. The castle is due to open at the end of 2019. Then the Berlin museums show their treasures from non-European cultures, the Humboldt University invites you to international conferences and the palace courtyard will serve as a backdrop for music and theater performances.

    Author: Jan Bruck (rbr)