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What is Asbestos and Why is it so Dangerous?

If you are wondering “what is asbestos?” it is a natural and versatile mineral that is known for its heat and fire resistance as well as insulating properties.

These useful properties resulted in the importation of approximately 6 million tonnes of raw asbestos into the United Kingdom over a period of 100 years.  Many different companies then added asbestos to their products.  It is estimated that over 3000 products containing asbestos were produced and used in the UK.

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

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

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.

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.

Dictionary definitions for asbestos

To give an idea of how dictionaries view “what is asbestos”, here are two definitions:

  • Used in mineralogy. a fibrous mineral, either amphibole or chrysotile, formerly used for making incombustible or fireproof articles. A fabric woven from asbestos fibers, formerly used for theatre curtains, firefighters’ gloves, etc.
  • Asbestos is a grey material which does not burn, and which has been used as a protection against fire or heat. Asbestos is any of the fibrous amphibole and serpentine minerals, esp. chrysotile and tremolite, that are incombustible and resistant to chemicals. It was formerly widely used in the form of fabric or board as a heat-resistant structural material.

When translated from Greek asbestos literally means “inextinguishable” – the “a” meaning “not” and the “sbestos” meaning quenching or extinguishing.

Why is asbestos so dangerous?

Asbestos is a category 1 carcinogen (it is proven to cause cancer in humans).  Asbestos is only dangerous when it is disturbed resulting in the release of asbestos fibres into the air.  When asbestos is disturbed, it breaks down to form a dust (up to 2000 times smaller hand a human hair) that can easily be inhaled.  Some of the asbestos fibres inhaled will be exhaled but some will become lodged within the luch tissues. 

Once inside the lungs the body’s natural defences are unable to break down / dissolve the asbestos fibres as they are resistant to chemical attack.  The body will form scar tissue around the asbestos fibres potentially leading to pleural plaques or in instances of significant exposure result in asbestos (severe scarring of the lung tissue).  Asbestos fibres also interact with lung tissues to cause lung cancer and pleural mesothelioma (cancer of the lung lining membranes).

Asbestos was banned in three phases. 

1985 – Amphibole asbestos fibres were banned (Amosite “Brown” Asbestos and Crocidolite “Blue” Asbestos were prohibited).

1992 – Low density (soft) Chrysotile “white” asbestos products (paints, artex, cloths, paper etc) were prohibited.

1999 – High density (hard) Chrysotile “white” asbestos products e.g., asbestos cement were prohibited.

Therefore, any property constructed prior to 1985 could contain significant quantities of asbestos containing materials.  We therefore classify pre-1985 properties as HIGH risk

Properties constructed between 1985 and 1992 would be MEDIUM risk and properties constructed between 1992 and 1999 would be LOW risk.

Each year, asbestos kills thousands of people who are exposed to this mineral, most typically deaths are in people aged 75+ where the disease has slowly progressed over many decades. Infact, according to statistics from the UK Asbestos Trade Association (UKATA), there are over 5,000 asbestos-related deaths per year. This reflects building materials used in construction and other industries especially between 1945 and 1980 (and to a lesser extent up to 2000). Statistics for 2018 revealed:

  • Mesothelioma deaths – 2,446
  • Asbestos-related lung cancers – around 2,500
  • Asbestosis – 503

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.

How can people become exposed to asbestos?

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

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

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

Environmental asbestos exposure 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.

Which fatal diseases can be caused by asbestos?

The following fatal diseases can be caused by asbestos:

Mesothelioma

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 asbestos exposure, but as this is a progressive condition that occurs over many years, it is almost always fatal.

Pleural thickening

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.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

COPD is usually caused by smoking but can also be triggered by toxins in the environment such as chemical fumes, air pollution and exposure to asbestos dust. Although, asbestos will not directly cause COPD it can be a definite trigger to this disease, which can ultimately lead to the death of the sufferer.

When you are most at risk from asbestos-related diseases?

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
  • There is no asbestos risk management plan in place
  • You don’t know how to work safely with asbestos

What are some dangerous facts about asbestos?

Here are some facts about asbestos, always 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
  • Asbestos mining still goes on today with 95%+ of world production being from just four countries – Russia, Kazakhstan, China, and Brazil (2 million tonnes per year)

What are some tips and advice to reduce, minimise, or eliminate asbestos exposure?

  • 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.

Contacting Safeline Environmental for all your asbestos removal and survey needs

Now you know the dangers of asbestos and understand more about “what is asbestos”, why not give us a call on 01299 251083, or if you prefer you can send an email to info@safeline-env.co.uk. Our full contact details are available at our contact us page, which also includes our contact form.

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Safeline Environmental is a leading asbestos removal and management services company, specialising in removal, survey and management of asbestos in the UK.

  

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