Asbestos is a natural and versatile mineral that is known for its heat and fire resistance as well as insulating properties. Many commercial and residential construction walls or ceilings contain asbestos mixed with cement. This material is also used in fireproof vests as it’s woven into the fabric.
All types of asbestos minerals have similar characteristic; they are odourless and tasteless. When this material is used in a product, it can’t be visually detected, unless traces of the minerals are sent to a laboratory for test. It is important for people to know the risks of asbestos exposure and how to protect themselves from it.
Why is asbestos so dangerous?
Although the use of asbestos declined sharply in the 70s, it is still present today in many renovated buildings that were constructed prior to the year 2000, even though it has been known for decades that it is a threat to human health.
It is the microscopic fibres that make asbestos hazardous, and when these fibres are inhaled; they cling to the respiratory system and become quite rigid in the inner cavity tissue. The human body cannot easily expel these fibres from the lungs or break them down.
Each year, asbestos kills thousands of workers who are exposed to this material at the workplace. If the building materials that contain asbestos are disturbed, fibres as thin as human hair are released into the air. By inhaling these fibres, you can experience many serious diseases; however, none of these diseases will affect you right away. They will develop gradually, but by the time you are diagnosed, it is often too late to seek treatment.
Types of asbestos
Each of the properties shared by asbestos minerals has its own unique features. Here are the two categories of asbestos minerals based on the appearance of their fibres.
Serpentine is made up of long and curly fibres. This type of asbestos only includes one mineral, which is referred to as ‘chrysotile’ or the white asbestos. It’s the most commonly used form of asbestos for commercial buildings. Its flexible nature allows this mineral to be combined with other products. The mineral is known for its heat-resistant and fireproof qualities, which is why it’s found in many products all over the world.
Amphibole includes five minerals including crocidolite, tremolite, amosite, actinolite, and anthophyllite. All these five minerals are composed of needle-like fibres, and when they are inhaled, it is the chrysolite fibres that pose the greatest health risk.
Fortunately, the characteristics of this type of asbestos make it a bad candidate for use in commercial products.
You can be exposed to asbestos in three different ways; through occupational exposure, secondary exposure, or environmental exposure. These are explained in more details below.
Occupational exposure is when a worker comes into contact with asbestos in the workplace. Pleural mesothelioma is one of the most common illnesses that individuals can suffer from if they work in construction or power plants.
Secondary exposure occurs when asbestos workers unknowingly pass on their exposure to family members. This is done through their dirty clothes that contain asbestos fibres. Once the wives or children come in contact with the asbestos-laden dust, the deadly substance enters their body.
Environmental exposure to asbestos occurs indirectly, either through pollution or natural means. Naturally-occurring exposure to asbestos deposits is mostly experienced in warmer parts of the country, where outdoor activities such as cycling or gardening may disturb fibres. Similarly, environmental exposure occurs due to mining or manufacturing of construction materials.
The following fatal diseases can be caused by asbestos:
This type of cancer affects the lining of the pleura (lungs) as well as the lower digestive tract. By the time it’s diagnosed, it may be too late for treatment as it’s almost always a deadly cancer, just like smoke-related lung cancer. According to World Health Organisation, one in three lung cancer deaths relates to mesothelioma.
Shortness of breath is one of the most common symptoms that people can experience after heavy exposure to asbestos, but as this is a progressive condition that occurs over many years, it is almost always fatal.
The thickening of the pleura (lining of the lungs) can cause many other problems, aside from cancer. The lung can feel squeezed and cause discomfort in the chest or breathing problems.
You are most at risk when:
- The property you are renovating was constructed before the year 2000
- The site you are working on is unfamiliar
- The materials that contain asbestos are not identified
- No health and safety training is arranged by your employer to raise awareness
- You don’t know how to work safely with asbestos
Remember the following:
- You won’t be able to see or smell the asbestos fibres that are released into the air
- Once you’re exposed to these fibres, the symptoms can take many years to show up, so avoid inhaling it now
- Smokers who are also exposed to asbestos are at a much bigger risk of developing lung cancer
- Asbestos itself isn’t dangerous until its fibres are released into the air that we breathe
- If asbestos isn’t disturbed or damaged, it won’t be a risk to you
Always wear protective gear at work, including a face mask and goggles. Make sure you clean up waste and wash your hands before going home. Never use tools like grinders or sanders that create dust and debris, but if you have no other option, then clean up using a vacuum cleaner. Finally, don’t reuse your disposable masks or clothing as these may contain asbestos fibres.