Asbestos is a highly dangerous substance that can cause a range of diseases. It is a naturally occurring fibrous material which was used extensively in the construction industry, predominantly for its fire-resistant properties. Its use was halted at the start of the century when its dangers were realised. However, it can still be found in an enormous number of commercial and residential buildings. Asbestos is thought to be harmless unless it is disturbed, for example through maintenance, refurbishment, installation works or demolition. Whilst work with asbestos is now governed by numerous legislations, this has not always been the case. For example, in industrial towns prior to 21st century, residents reported mistaking asbestos for snow as it fell thickly from the sky in white clumps. Similarly, workers would entertain themselves by bundling asbestos together into large spheres to play football. This care-free behaviour highlights the alarming lack of understanding that surrounded the significant dangers of asbestos exposure. This has in turn resulted in a generation suffering from avoidable life-limiting and life-threatening conditions.
Asbestos Health Risks
The main health risks posed by asbestos exposure are:
• Pleural disease
• Lung cancer
Asbestosis is a disease characterised by lung scarring due to the inhalation of damaging asbestos fibres. It causes worsening shortness of breath and irreversible damage. Pleural disease is a vague term referring to non-cancerous diseases that affect the lung lining (pleura), including pleural thickening, plaques and effusions (fluid collections). Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer, affecting the lung lining. It has a very poor prognosis and is nearly always fatal. Asbestos exposure can also lead to the development of lung cancer, which much like mesothelioma has a poor outlook, with less than 10% of people alive 5 years after diagnosis. As you can appreciate, asbestos-related diseases result in a considerable amount of suffering and tragic loss of life.
How is Asbestos Dangerous?
After being disturbed, toxic asbestos fibres can be inhaled and become deeply imbedded in the lung tissues. The fibres cause genetic and cellular damage which gradually accumulates over a number of years. The long-term inflammation can lead to asbestosis and pleural disease. And when combined with a build-up of changes (mutations) in the DNA, it can result in the development of lung cancer or mesothelioma. For this reason, asbestos is termed a carcinogen (a substance capable of causing cancer in living cells) and must be handled with care.
What Can We Do to Minimise the Dangers of Asbestos?
Asbestos-related diseases typically occur many years after asbestos exposure, when the damage has had time to build up. Consequently, by the time that the diseases arise, it is far too late to do anything about the asbestos exposure. Therefore, the fundamental approach to combatting asbestos-related diseases is avoiding exposure in the first place. Given the gravity of the issue, there are numerous legislations in place to regulate the handling of asbestos, namely the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015. Legislation outlines a number of duty holder responsibilities, good record management and relevant information sharing. A fundamental principle in preventing asbestos exposure is promoting asbestos awareness and education. Asbestos training courses are an effective way of generating asbestos awareness as well as educating employees on the risks that asbestos can pose and how these can be mitigated.