Research | Making cultural heritage asbestos safe

Sep 2021

In 2018, the Flemish government approved OVAM's Asbestos Building Action Plan. This plan aims to make Flanders completely asbestos-safe by 2040. In this context, a research group has been set up consisting of ETWIE, FARO and OVAM, various museums, consultancy firms and the University of Antwerp. This group aims to make the cultural sector asbestos-safe. This is done, among other things, by creating awareness among professionals and by researching asbestos applications in heritage.

Project Dangerous Heritage and its urgency
Asbestos in heritage: it may not sound obvious, but it is becoming increasingly clear that there is a lot of asbestos in our heritage collections. The elusive miracle material has had many thousands of uses. The excellent properties - heat and cold resistant, moisture resistant, electrically insulating, mold resistant, acid/alkaline resistant and above all cheap - have ensured that asbestos is present everywhere in our society.

Asbestos, derived from the Greek word 'asbestos' which stands for 'indestructible', is a collective term for various microscopic fibres consisting of silicates. In Belgium, asbestos is widely used in all kinds of applications. The substance is carcinogenic: if the fine fibres are inhaled, incurable diseases can manifest themselves after an incubation period of 30 years. Recent research has shown that public awareness of the asbestos problem in Belgium is on the low side. After a long time, there is still a big taboo surrounding the theme, which seems to be slowly changing. This is partly due to projects that raise awareness of the dangers of asbestos, such as the Dangerous Heritage project.

The role of Art Salvage

The research project Dangerous Heritage on which Art Salvage is working tries to answer how we can conserve asbestos as efficiently and safely as possible, given the historical value that the material can contribute to the object.

When material containing asbestos is found, it is essential to consolidate it. But where asbestos can be remediated in construction, the object's integrity is jeopardized in the case of heritage objects. On the other hand, if no measures are taken, the objects must be packed airtight and cannot be exhibited or otherwise handled. Therefore, the research group has asked our restoration studio to conduct a study into the consolidation and packaging of asbestos in heritage.

Therefore, the research project is twofold: 1) consolidation of asbestos-containing objects and 2) investigating a suitable packaging method for asbestos-containing objects.

Project in the spotlight

Research conservation
Part 1 includes the research into the possibilities for the consolidation of objects containing asbestos. This considers the materials' structure based on the supplied test cases; asbestos cord, asbestos textiles, and asbestos cardboard. A number of object handling activities have been identified as tasks that can cause exposure to asbestos, such as preservation, handling and manipulation, object restoration, inspections, display of objects, packaging and unpacking of objects, etc. The consolidation performed must pass these mentioned operations without affecting the fibre emission violating the safety standard.

Based on relevant literature, a selection is made of consolidants (based on technical/chemical data sheets and properties), which are frequently used within conservation to consolidate various materials.

The selected consolidants are subjected to dummies to various tests (UV ageing, gloss, adhesive strength, etc.) to determine their material-technical and aesthetic properties. The objects are then subjected to stress tests to determine whether the consolidation was successful. The three museum objects will be discussed based on the results of the research.