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What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a set of six naturally occurring silicate materials that come from metamorphic rocks. Asbestos occurs in large deposits naturally on every continent. The name ‘Asbestos’ comes from the Greek word which means ‘unquenchable’ or ‘inextinguishable’, as the material is very strong and resistant to chemicals, fire, and water. It also doesn’t biodegrade, decompose or dissolve in water.
Because of its resilient qualities, asbestos has been used in thousands of different products and building materials throughout the centuries. The use of asbestos has been common in the industrialised world since the mid to late-19th century. However, it was not until the 20th century that asbestos was widely used in domestic and commercial buildings throughout the UK. Following previous bans of asbestos types in the UK (e.g. amosite and crocidolite in 1985), it wasn’t until 1999 that its use was completely banned in the UK. Unfortunately, by this point, asbestos had already been used in most aspects of construction and is embedded in the fabric of many buildings
What are the most common types of asbestos?
Chrysotile was the most commonly used form of asbestos in the construction industry and is often referred to as ‘white’ asbestos. Chrysotile in its pure mineral form does indeed have white fibres but does not make identifying the presence of the material easy as it is often mixed with other materials to manufacture the finished product. Chrysotile was the only type of asbestos allowed in the UK from 1985 before its final ban in 1999.
Amosite, often referred to as ‘brown’ asbestos was widely used in the UK for producing insulation boards along with thermal insulation, pipes, slabs and moulded pipe fitting covers. Amosite is from the family of minerals known as Amphibole because of its harsh and spiky fibres. Amosite is considered one of the more dangerous types of asbestos due to the straight nature of the fibres.
Crocidolite, also known as ‘blue’ asbestos is also part of the Amphibole family of minerals like Amosite. Considered the most dangerous type of commercially used asbestos, its use in the UK reduced considerably in the 1960’s and 70’s as health concerns were raised. Crocidolite was used in various types of asbestos containing materials, but particularly apparent in sprayed coatings due to its high bulk volume.
How small are asbestos fibres?
It is impossible to see individual asbestos fibres with the naked eye. High-powered microscopes are required in order to see these. Remember, you cannot see or smell airborne asbestos fibres. Asbestos fibres are incredibly small and can travel easily into the lungs. If you suspect asbestos-containing materials have been disturbed and/or airborne fibres are present, an air test will be required by a UKAS accredited testing body to ascertain the airborne fibre concentration.
Why is asbestos dangerous?
When materials that contain asbestos are disturbed or damaged, fibres are released into the air. These fibres are extremely dangerous to inhale and can pose serious health and safety risks. When these fibres are inhaled, they can cause serious diseases. These diseases will not affect you immediately; they often take a long time to develop, but once diagnosed, it is often too late to do anything. Therefore, it is important that you protect yourself now. It is also important to remember that people who smoke, and are also exposed to asbestos fibres, are at a much greater risk of developing lung cancer.
Asbestos-related diseases kill more people than road accidents in the UK each year, and the number is still growing. Around 20 tradesmen die each week as a result of past exposure. However, asbestos is not just a problem of the past. It can be present today in any building built or refurbished before the year 2000.