In this article:
- What asbestos is
- Why asbestos was used
- The different types of asbestos explained
- The dangers of asbestos
- How to manage asbestos
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring and yet highly dangerous material that was used extensively in the construction industry from the 1950s to midway through the 1980s. It is a fibrous material that has been utilised for its insulation and fire-resistant properties. Asbestos comes in six different types, all with slightly differing properties, but importantly all types of asbestos are highly dangerous. For this reason, distinguishing between the types can be considered futile and all should be treated with care accordingly.
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. Asbestos exposure can cause a multitude of illnesses and should be avoided entirely.
Why was asbestos used?
Asbestos has a collection of highly useful properties which made it well suited to use in the construction industry and beyond. Properties include: fire resistance, insulation, resistance to many chemicals, strength, insolubility in water, no odour and easy manipulation. At the time that asbestos was so widely used, people were unaware of the numerous health risks that it posed.
Due to its diverse range of properties, asbestos can be found in a large array of materials and products. A few common culprits are listed below.
- Spray coatings on walls, ceilings and beams
- Insulating boards in fire doors, floors and ceilings
- Textured coatings on walls and ceilings for decoration
- Lagging on boilers and pipework
- Floor tiles and textiles
- In cement on roofs and exterior walls
What are the different types of asbestos?
There are six different types of asbestos:
- Chrysotile (white)
- Amosite (brown)
- Crocidolite (blue)
They all have different useful properties and a different risk profile. We will therefore discuss each type individually.
All asbestos types have different useful properties and a different risk profile. We will therefore discuss each type individually.
1. Chrysotile asbestos
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).
2. Amosite asbestos
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.
3. Crocidolite asbestos
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.
4. Anthophyllite asbestos
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.
5. Tremolite asbestos & 6. Actinolite asbestos
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.
The asbestos types grouped together
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 is dangerous is asbestos?
Asbestos is a highly dangerous material and carcinogen (a substance that can cause cancer in living cells). Sadly, many of its health risks were not recognised until copious amounts of people had already developed the life-limiting and life-threatening complications of exposure. Whilst asbestos is believed to be harmless unless disturbed, it can easily be disturbed through maintenance, refurbishment, installation and demolition works. The fibres are thin and long, meaning that they can easily lodge in your lungs when inhaled. Here they build up and cause repetitive damage. Exposure to asbestos can lead to the development of: lung cancer, mesothelioma (a rare cancer affecting the lung lining), pleural disease and asbestosis.
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 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.
Many of the diseases caused by exposure to asbestos take decades to develop, which sadly means that by the time they present, nothing can be done to address this risk or undo the damage. Due to the considerable health risks of asbestos exposure, a number of legislations are in place to govern its handling:
- 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
- The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015
Whilst it is a moral duty to protect worker's health, implementation of the aforementioned legislation makes it a legal responsibility too. Managing asbestos can be a complicated ordeal, but through simple training and promotion of asbestos awareness, the necessary steps can be put in place to protect the health of us all.