Asbestos still found in 64% of Flemish houses

Asbestos still found in 64% of Flemish houses
Example of asbestos cement siding and lining on a post-war temporary house. Credit: Wikipedia

Though difficult to detect with the naked eye, 3,102 homes in Flanders were found to contain asbestos an inspection revealed, De Standaard reports.

A visit by a certified expert to check homes built before 2001 is now mandatory; since 15 September, prospective sellers can apply for an asbestos certificate. At De Standaard's request, waste company Ovam checked the certificates already issued to see whether asbestos was found in the 3,102 homes already inspected. In 64% of cases, it was.

Exposure to asbestos can lead to a range of diseases including lung cancer, pleural cancer and peritoneal cancer. Diseases don't occur until 30 to 40 years after exposure but the more contact with asbestos, the higher the risk of illness, warned Ovam. Hundreds of people die in Belgium due to asbestos exposure.

A valued building material

"Asbestos is one of the biggest causes of death in the workplace," said Barn Hamelink, an asbestos inspector, in De Standaard. "Employees are sometimes exposed to it without realising, for example by working in an outdated building."

Ovam used its findings to estimate how much asbestos was in Flanders in 2019. The waste company calculates that apartments and buildings contain some 865,000 tons of asbestos, while schools had 14,000 tons.

Belgium had several asbestos factories in the 20th century, as it was considered an attractive building material at the time, explains Aart Vandenbroek of Fedasbest, the Flemish association of accredited laboratories and experts.

"After the war and well into the 1970s, it was used for many construction projects, until the legal general prohibition of use in 2001," Vandenbroek told De Standaard.

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With the European Green Deal, a wave of renovations is expected to make homes more energy efficient. The asbestos certificate will then come in handy so that people aren't exposed to asbestos unprepared.

"Many old buildings will be renovated and there is a high risk. We must ensure that as few people as possible are exposed to asbestos. The new asbestos certificate will be of great value for this."

Not necessarily unsafe

Although 64% of houses in Flanders contain asbestos, they aren't necessarily unhealthy to live in. 57% of the inspected houses are still safe as either no asbestos was detected or the asbestos in them doesn't present a safety risk.

The owner of a home with asbestos isn't legally obliged to remove it. However, Flanders has set a target to be safe from asbestos by 2040, though this is different to being asbestos-free.

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