Whilst asbestos isn’t a material that is used in any UK construction materials anymore, it’s still something that is causing problems and presenting health risks to both people working in this industry and people living or working in older buildings. If your day-to-day work is likely to bring you into contact with materials containing asbestos then knowing how to recognise asbestos and the signs of asbestos in different settings can be incredibly valuable.
Asbestos fibres are incredibly dangerous, made even more so by the fact that individual fibres are invisible to the naked eye. It’s for this reason that asbestos identification is so important if you’re likely to end up working around it, as you’ll need to take immediate action to ensure you stay safe.
In this article, we explain what asbestos looks like and where it’s likely to be found, as well as share how to identify asbestos in some of the most common places it can be found.
Hundreds of different products are known to contain asbestos, so there are plenty of different ways the material can look.
In its raw or loose form, asbestos appears to be a loose and almost fluffy material that is either grey, grey-brown or grey-blue. Clumps of asbestos may separate into strings or fibres, which are made up of microscopic asbestos fibres that are easily dislodged and sent into the air, where they can be inhaled.
There are three main types of asbestos that can be recognised by their difference in colour.
Crocidolite asbestos is a light blueish white, consists of long and thin fibres, and is known for being the most dangerous kind of asbestos. Amosite asbestos is brown and found more frequently in the US, and is also known for posing the biggest risk of cancer.
Chrysotile asbestos is white in colour and can be identified by its curly fibres that are arranged in a layered structure when used in materials. This is one of the most commonly used types of asbestos, found in all kinds of building materials.
When learning what asbestos looks like, it is also important to understand the difference between friable and non-friable asbestos. Non-friable asbestos is much more solid and doesn’t crumble when agitated, whereas reliable asbestos appears much less solid and will fall apart and disintegrate when it is knocked or has pressure applied.
Asbestos was used as a building material in all kinds of industrial or residential buildings that were constructed or refurbished before 2000. If you’re wondering how to know if you have asbestos, one of the first things to check is whether the space you’re inspecting was built or refurbished during this time, as the use of asbestos was banned in the UK in 2000.
You can find asbestos in a wide variety of building materials used both inside and outside residential and industrial properties. Here’s a list of some of the most common places where the material might be found:
If you’re assessing a building for asbestos, all of the above locations need to be checked if it is suspected that asbestos might be present.
As we’ve already highlighted, you can find asbestos in a variety of locations and other materials. Identifying it can be difficult depending on the state that it’s in, so we’ve broken down some of the most common places that you might find asbestos and how to recognise asbestos in each of these scenarios.
When asbestos was still a popular material for developing construction materials, floor tiles were a really common example where it was likely to be found. This is thanks to the fire-resistance qualities of asbestos, which made it ideal to use on the floor in kitchen environments in particular.
Asbestos is difficult to visually identify in floor tiles on its own, but there are other factors that you can consider to help make your assessment more accurate. These are:
The only way to know for certain whether you have asbestos in your floor tiles is to get them checked by a licensed asbestos inspector. The asbestos in floor tiles isn’t dangerous unless the tiles are physically damaged, but they should still be safely removed if discovered.
Crocidolite, amosite, and chrysolite can all be used as a material in roof tiles, which can give the tiles a white, grey or even blue colour. However, many other roof tile materials look the same, so this isn’t a very accurate method for asbestos identification.
The simplest way to check whether a roof tile contains asbestos is to check whether it has an identification mark. One in every twenty roof tiles containing asbestos has an identification mark indicating the presence of the material, so several roof tiles may have to be checked to determine whether asbestos is present.
You can also identify whether there is asbestos in a roof tile by sending it off for scientific analysis.
Insulation is one of the most common places where you’re likely to find asbestos, thanks to the highly insulative properties of the material. You might find this in walls, in the loft of a building insulating the roof, in the basement, in closets or crawl spaces, or wrapped around pipes or a boiler.
Vermiculite insulation and asbestos pipe insulation are the two most common types of asbestos insulation. The former is also known as loose-fill or called blown-in and can be identified by its loose form and lumpy texture.
Vermiculite loose-fill insulation is typically grey-brown or silver-gold in colour and has a pebble-like appearance caused by the material expanding when it is heated. This is a particularly dangerous form of asbestos, as disturbing it can release fibres into the air which can lead to serious health complications if they are inhaled.
Asbestos pipe insulation involves wrapping exposed pipes with insulative material that contains asbestos. This usually looks like white or grey corrugated cardboard, with the corrugated edges being a key visual giveaway that asbestos is present.
Asbestos water tanks are common in older buildings that were designed and constructed before 2000. They tend to be made out of asbestos cement which contains around 10-15% asbestos and can release asbestos fibres into the air if this cement is agitated or disturbed.
It’s difficult to identify an asbestos water tank if you don’t have a record stating the material that the tank is made out of, as they look like any other water tank. Asbestos water tanks aren’t very common as most have already been removed from older buildings, but if you think a water tank might be made out of asbestos cement then it’s best to get it professionally surveyed.
Asbestos used to be regularly added to plaster building materials like cement to make it heat and fire-resistant up until the late 1980s. If a building was constructed before this time, it may contain asbestos in the cement used on walls or floors.
Since asbestos is mixed in with plaster and is not the main component of the material, it’s very difficult to visually identify if it’s present. Therefore, if you’re wondering how to recognise asbestos in plaster, the best thing to do is to check how old the wall or ceiling is.
If the plaster on a wall or ceiling has been there since before around 1990, it’s safe to say that a sample should probably be sent off to a lab to scientifically test for asbestos. This is particularly important if the wall or ceiling has already been damaged, as this could be causing asbestos fibres to be released into the air.
Asbestos is a kind of naturally occurring silicate mineral that comes from metamorphic rocks. These rocks can be found in soil and rocks across the world, and some countries still have large asbestos mines in operation to remove the material from the ground, despite the health risk it presents.
Yes, in some cases you can visually identify asbestos even when it is present in a material. This tends to be easier when the material has been broken or split, as the fibres are often more visible on the inside.
You cannot see individual asbestos fibres with the naked eye as they are too small. However, these fibres are visible when looked at under a microscope, or can be seen when they are in a large group or clump together.
If you work in construction on or around older buildings, then you may often find yourself wondering how to know if you have asbestos in your working environment. Being able to identify asbestos in walls, floor and ceiling tiles, insulation and items like water tanks is the key to keeping yourself safe and ensuring that this dangerous material can be moved or contained so that it no longer presents a threat.
If you work in an industry where it is likely you’ll be in environments where asbestos is present, our ‘Asbestos Awareness’ online training course is an ideal way to learn how to identify the material and what you need to do to stay safe whilst working with or around it.