Asbestos is a naturally occurring and yet highly dangerous substance that was used extensively in the construction industry and beyond. It comes in six different types, all with slightly differing properties. Asbestos containing materials (ACMs) are still incredibly common in buildings constructed before 2000 and are at risk of being disturbed by installation, maintenance, refurbishment and demolition works. Once disturbed the fibres can be inhaled, embedding deep into our lungs and potentially causing a whole host of serious diseases.
The Six Types of Asbestos
There are six different types of asbestos: chrysotile (white), amosite (brown), crocidolite (blue), anthophyllite, tremolite and actinolite. They all have different useful properties and a different risk profile. We will therefore discuss each type individually.
White (chrysotile) asbestos is the most common form. It has been utilised widely due to its heat resistant properties and can often be found in roofs, ceilings, walls and floors as well as in the automobile industry. This form of asbestos is considered less dangerous than the others. It was the last type of asbestos to be banned, in 1999. Worryingly, chrysotile asbestos has been linked to the development of mesothelioma (a rare but very serious cancer of the lung lining).
Brown (amosite) asbestos is the second most common form of asbestos. It is commonly found in cement sheets as well as pipe insulation. Additionally, it was used for its anti-condensation and sound-proofing properties. Lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis are all big problems with brown asbestos exposure.
Blue (crocidolite) asbestos is the most lethal form of asbestos. Its ACMs tend to be brittle, meaning they break down quickly and release their dangerous fibres for inhalation. It was commonly used in old steam engine insulation and for reinforcement of other materials, e.g. plastics or concrete. Tragically, it is reported that around 1 in 5 crocidolite asbestos miners have developed mesothelioma.
Anthophyllite asbestos is a less common form but can sometimes be found in insulation and construction materials. It can also be found contaminating white asbestos, vermiculite and talc.
The remaining two types of asbestos are tremolite and actinolite. These types of asbestos were not used commercially, but again they can be found contaminating white asbestos, vermiculite and talc. They can appear white, brown, green, grey or transparent in colour.
Asbestos Type Grouping
There are two families of asbestos fibres: serpentine and amphibole. The serpentine family is made up of one type of asbestos: chrysotile (white). It is characterised by curly fibres which are more flexible than the other types. Meanwhile, the amphibole family comprises the other five types: amosite (brown), crocidolite (blue), anthophyllite, tremolite and actinolite. These are typically straight, sharp and thin fibres. The needle-shaped fibres in this family are easily inhaled and can quickly become lodged in the airways, causing irritation and permanent damage.
How to Manage Different Types of Asbestos
It is important to realise that there are no safe types of asbestos so all types should be treated with care. As such, they are all essentially handled in the same manner and with the same precautions. Safe practices are crucial as exposure to asbestos can result in lung cancer, mesothelioma, asbestosis and pleural disease. Asbestos training courses are useful in raising awareness on the dangers of asbestos exposure whilst simultaneously equipping employees with the necessary skills to work with asbestos safely.