What is Asbestos?

Once marketed as a ‘magic mineral’, asbestos is now an infamous public health menace.

Asbestos is the name given to a group of naturally occurring minerals used in certain products, such as building materials and vehicle brakes, to resist heat and corrosion. It includes chrysotile (white), amosite (brown), crocidolite (blue), tremolite asbestos, anthophyllite asbestos, actinolite asbestos, and any of these materials that have been chemically treated and/or altered.

What are the dangers?

The inhalation of asbestos fibres can cause serious diseases of the lungs, and other organs, that may not appear until years after the exposure has occurred. For instance, asbestosis can cause a build-up of scar-like tissue in the lungs and result in loss of lung function that often progresses to disability and death.

There are four main diseases caused by asbestos:

  • Mesothelioma (which is always fatal)
  • Lung cancer (almost always fatal)
  • Asbestosis (not always fatal, but it can be very debilitating)
  • Diffuse pleural thickening (not fatal).

According to the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE), asbestos-related conditions are responsible for around 4,000 deaths a year. 

Where can I find it?

Asbestos was extensively used as a building material in the UK from the 1950s through to the mid-1980s. It was used for a variety of purposes and was ideal for fireproofing and insulation. Any building built before 2000 (houses, factories, offices, schools, hospitals etc.) can contain asbestos. Asbestos materials that are in good condition are safe, unless asbestos fibres become airborne, which happens when materials are damaged or disturbed.

Asbestos fibres are present in the UK environment, so everyone is exposed to very low levels of fibres. However, a key factor in the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease is the total number of fibres breathed in. Working on or near damaged asbestos-containing materials, or breathing in high levels of asbestos fibres, could increase your chances of getting an asbestos-related disease.

Asbestos & the law

Because of the risks of working with asbestos, there are numerous sets of regulations which place requirements on contractors and employers The regulations cover working with all types of asbestos-containing materials. A quick summary of these regulations can be found in the asbestos regulations section of the HSE website.