Asbestos has been used extensively in the construction industry for the past 150 years, predominantly due to its insulation and fire-resistant properties. Asbestos is no longer in use; however, it is thought that in excess of 1 million UK buildings contain asbestos, meaning we are all at risk of asbestos exposure. It may seem curious that a hazardous substance was used so extensively; however, asbestos has a multitude of beneficial properties that were utilised within the construction industry and beyond. Additionally, at the time that asbestos use became popularised, little was known about its numerous health risks. Asbestos-related diseases include: lung cancer, mesothelioma (a rare but serious cancer of the lung lining), asbestosis and pleural disease.
The Useful Properties of Asbestos
Asbestos was predominantly used for the following properties:
- Extreme heat resistance
- Resistance to many chemicals
- High tensile strength
- No odour
- Insolubility in water
- Ease with which it can be manipulated
Asbestos, a naturally occurring substance with a whole host of incredibly useful properties, was set to massively benefit the construction industry. However, this hope was too good to be true. The health risks of asbestos were experienced not only by those working with asbestos but also their families, who were unknowingly exposed to asbestos through fibres traipsed home on workers' clothes.
Asbestos in Use
The diverse set of properties listed above meant that asbestos could be utilised in a wide range of ways and many different products. Some of the main uses of asbestos are outlined 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
The Dangers of Asbestos
It is important to emphasise that asbestos is not believed to be dangerous unless it is disturbed. However, it can be disturbed relatively easily through the following processes: installations, maintenance works, demolition and refurbishment. For this reason, people working in the following occupations are at an increased risk of exposure:
- Construction and demolition contractors
- Alarm installers
- Painters and decorators
- Gas fitters
Asbestos is a carcinogen (substance capable of causing cancer in living cells) and exposure can result in the development of mesothelioma and lung cancer. Additionally, asbestos exposure has been linked to the development of asbestosis and pleural disease. The numerous health risks of asbestos exposure highlight the importance of promptly recognising asbestos and ensuring appropriate safeguards are in place.
Combatting the Risks Posed by Asbestos
An estimated 4000 people lose their lives to the health complications of asbestos exposure every year. With this figure in mind, it is strikingly obvious that asbestos must be handled with care and those at risk need to be equipped with knowledge. Asbestos related diseases typically occur decades after asbestos exposure, meaning it is already far too late to mitigate the risk. Therefore, the most effective way of tackling asbestos-related diseases is preventing asbestos exposure in the first place. There are several pieces of legislation in place to govern work with asbestos and management of asbestos-containing buildings and materials. Compliance is crucial as it ensures protection for workers' health as well as being a legal obligation. Due to the multitude of legislation and dire consequences of getting it wrong, asbestos management can seem daunting. However, training can increase both awareness and understanding of asbestos handling.