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Asbestos: What Is It, and Why Is It Dangerous?

Steph worked in the asbestos industry for three years and has in-depth health and safety knowledge.


What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring rock, previously mined for use in manufacturing building materials.

Asbestos Is Banned in Most Countries

It is now banned in many countries; the UK completely banned the use of asbestos in 1999. However, it is not banned in the USA, and even though its use has been reduced, it is still used in a small number of products including gaskets and roofing materials.

What You'll Learn in This Article

  • A brief history of asbestos
  • The different types of asbestos
  • Why it was used as a building material
  • The dangers of inhaling asbestos
  • Famous asbestos incidents

How to Identify Different Types of Asbestos

There are three main types of asbestos:

  1. Crocidolite: blue asbestos
  2. Amosite: brown asbestos
  3. Chrysotile: white asbestos

Three lesser-known types of asbestos include tremolite, actinolite and anthophyllite.

Asbestos Must Be Identified by a Professional

Asbestos is identified by having a qualified asbestos consultant take a small sample of the material and then having it analysed by a qualified laboratory technician. In the UK, the technician must have the British Occupation Hygiene Society (BOHS) Proficiency 401 (P401) qualification.

The sample is analysed using polarised light microscopy within a ventilated cabinet to keep any loose fibres out of the air people breathe in.

Asbestos fibres in the air can also be detected by qualified asbestos analysts who will collect air samples using pumps and then count the number of fibres using a microscope.

Asbestos must be identified and removed by professionals wearing safety gear.

Asbestos must be identified and removed by professionals wearing safety gear.

Why Did We Ever Use Asbestos if It's Dangerous?

Asbestos was used for thousands of years for its unrivaled fireproofing property. Placing asbestos materials around items that were the most likely to cause fires such as electrical cabling and electric heaters was common.

Asbestos was also used to stop fires from spreading further through a building, for example using the asbestos insulating board (AIB) in walls and ceilings.

Asbestos was also found to be stronger than other materials without the weight of comparable products. So with its fireproofing properties and its strength, it was the ideal building material.

Asbestos came in several different forms, such as board, vinyl tiles, and a spray coating.

Why Is Asbestos Dangerous?

If an asbestos-containing material is in good condition with no damage, it is unlikely to be releasing any dangerous asbestos fibres into the air and so is considered safe. However, the condition of the material should be monitored.

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Damaged asbestos materials should be isolated and removed by a licensed contractor, who has the equipment to safely remove the asbestos without further endangering others. They will have special masks and a strict decontamination procedure.

Inhaling Asbestos Is Very Harmful Because It's a Carcinogen

It is the breathing in of asbestos fibres that causes a person to get an asbestos-related disease.

Asbestos is now known to be a human carcinogen, with many previous employers and insurance companies paying compensation in recent years to workers and their families for the effects of asbestos.

The main cancers attributed to asbestos exposure are:

  • Mesothelioma
  • Asbestosis
  • Lung cancer

There is no treatment for asbestosis and it is extremely rare for anyone to survive mesothelioma.

It generally takes between 30 and 50 years for the effects of asbestos to materialise.

It has been stated that there is no safe exposure level for asbestos and it appears that those suffering from asbestos-related diseases have had a wide range of exposure.

The rope on the inside of sash windows commonly contains asbestos

The rope on the inside of sash windows commonly contains asbestos

What Should I Do If I Suspect I Have Asbestos in My Home?

First of all, don't even think about removing it yourself. I've seen plenty of blogs (and I'm sorry to say the majority of these originate in America!) providing a step-by-step guide of how to remove asbestos from your home.

Hire a Professional to Remove Asbestos From Your Home

  • Sorry, but leaving windows open will make no difference and washing your clothes at a high temperature afterward is not enough to remove the asbestos fibres.
  • Do you need to remove the asbestos as part of a home improvement project, or are you planning to damage it in some way (e.g. drill into it)? If so, you will need to call an asbestos consultant to come and take a sample of the material to confirm it is in fact asbestos.
    This should not cost very much at all; they should tell you how much it will be to take and analyse a sample before visiting your property.
  • If the material is asbestos, the asbestos consultant should be able to advise you of who would be able to remove it. You could also get your own quotes from asbestos removal companies.
  • The cost of asbestos removal depends on the size of the area and the type of asbestos it is. However, the cost of keeping yourself and your family safe is invaluable.

Famous Asbestos Incidents

Within the asbestos industry, it is known that chrysotile asbestos was once used to depict snow in several films, including the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz and the 1942 film Holiday Inn featuring Bing Crosby.

More recently, people will remember the Twin Towers in New York falling as a result of a terrorist attack. The dust that people were seen to be running through is widely accepted to contain large levels of asbestos fibres, as the buildings were constructed using asbestos materials.

Further Reading

If you think you may have asbestos in your home or workplace, you should contact an asbestos consultant.

If you think you may have asbestos in your home or workplace, you should contact an asbestos consultant.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2016 Kelly Johns

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