Asbestos is one of those things that many people have heard about, or have some knowledge of, but as construction practices have moved on, fewer and fewer people really understand the implications of it. However, due to its prevalence, it’s still really important that people have an appreciation for the dangers it poses. In this article, we’re going to consider the reasons that asbestos is dangerous, as well as giving some context as to why you might encounter it, and what happens if you do.
Of course, the first thing to understand is exactly what asbestos is and why it’s dangerous. The word ‘asbestos’ actually refers to a group of six naturally occurring minerals, obtained through mining. These minerals are all fairly similar, being very fibrous and quite unlike other minerals found in the ground. Its appearance is generally similar to loft insulation, and other fuzzy materials, though it can be compressed into boards as we’ll discuss in the next section.
The issue with asbestos is that these fibres can very easily be cast into the air if the product is disturbed or broken, or indeed during the mining and production process. These fibres are extremely dangerous when inhaled and can contribute to a number of severe health implications including tumours, lung cancer, warts on the skin and pleural plaque and thickening. In many cases, scarring of the lungs can occur, which is a long-term issue that increases a person’s risk of heart failure.
More than 100,000 people worldwide die each year from occupational exposure to asbestos according to the World Health Organisation, with upper estimates closer to a quarter of a million, and the number in the UK is around 5,000. While the number is falling, this is still a significant figure, and more work still needs to be done in raising awareness about the dangers of asbestos and reducing the risk of it becoming a problem where it’s still used.
To understand why we need to understand the risks of asbestos, it helps to understand a little about why it’s used and where it can be found.
As a building material, asbestos is a highly flexible substance in terms of its qualities and uses. Its fibrous nature means that it can be shaped and used easily in various applications, and it boasts various benefits. It offers good insulation properties, it can absorb sound, it’s resistant to fire and heat, it’s strong, and is a good electrical insulator. It’s easy to see why so many people saw it as an excellent choice.
Asbestos has in fact been mined for thousands of years, but it became a hugely popular building material in the mid-19th century as industrialisation took hold and countries such as the UK rapidly increased their demand for construction materials. Asbestos was a good insulator and readily available making it an ideal choice. It took several decades before it was first identified as a severe health risk, and in the early 20th century medical professionals began to recognise that it had caused deaths. Asbestosis, one of the diseases caused by the material, was first described in the 1920s, and was found to be extremely prevalent amongst those who’d worked with the material.
Unfortunately however, this discovery did not stop the use of asbestos. Measures were taken to try and make it safer to use, but these were generally failures, and did not take into account the later impact of buildings made using asbestos products. As a result, many hundreds of thousands - and potentially millions - of buildings in this country and all over the world still contain asbestos. It was not until August 1999 that asbestos was banned in the United Kingdom, following a directive by the European Union.
Traditionally there were two main risks of encountering asbestos, and thankfully one of those is now almost entirely nonexistent in the UK. The first was of course for those who worked in asbestos production, manufacturing of products containing it, or the installation of building materials that were made from it. In the UK, the import of most asbestos products is now illegal, meaning that that those who work directly with the substance are qualified and trained to deal with it carefully.
However, there is still very significant risk of encountering asbestos both in a commercial and domestic environment.
Commercially, construction businesses all over the country still have to be very aware of the risks of asbestos, because it’s incredibly prevalent in jobs where older buildings - and even those built only thirty years ago - need renovation or demolition. Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, those working in an area where asbestos might be present have a ‘duty to manage’ the asbestos, and this will generally mean a designated person whose job it is to assess risk and deal with the issue should any asbestos be encountered. Generally, if asbestos is present at a site, then it’s very likely to be the case that a licensed contractor will need to carry out the work. The UK’s Health and Safety Executive issues these licenses.
One of the big reasons it’s really important for the wider public to be aware of the risks of asbestos is that it wasn’t just used in schools, hospitals and other public buildings - it was a widely used material in domestic spaces too. The alarming fact is that around half of homes in the UK contain asbestos somewhere; most often in insulation boards and similar products. Thankfully, for most people there is little to no risk, as asbestos is not harmful when contained within building materials. The problem however is that asbestos fibres can be released if asbestos-containing items are disturbed such as with DIY renovations. Cutting into board and releasing the fibres within could have severe health implications.
The HSE and other government bodies and trade authorities do regularly publish guidance on what businesses need to do when it comes to raising awareness about asbestos. However, there are still many industry workers not aware of the extent of asbestos use prior to the turn of the 21st century, nor do they realise the harm that it can cause. Similarly, homeowners in the UK may not be aware that there is a chance that they might encounter asbestos when conducting any kind of DIY activity within walls, ceilings and the loft space of their home. It’s important that the issue is recognised, and anyone with doubts should always contact an accredited, licensed asbestos removal or management company. In some cases, the asbestos-containing products can be left in place and simply marked if they don’t pose a risk.
Businesses who need more information about the risks of asbestos as well as their duties when it comes to managing it should consult the HSE. If you feel that you or your employees need more comprehensive training in asbestos awareness, then consider taking the Virtual College course on the subject, which can be found here. The asbestos awareness course meets the HSE’s guidelines on the most basic level of asbestos training, and is ideal for those who might work around asbestos in the course of their work, which includes particularly those in the construction industry, as well as those that work on home renovations, gas fitters, fire alarm fitters, telecoms engineers, painters and decorators, and more.