What are the health risks associated with asbestos?

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Asbestos may have been banned in 2019 in the UK, but it's still responsible for killing nearly 5000 people every year - that's more than the number of people killed on the roads. Knowing the health risks associated with asbestos is of vital importance if you work in an industry where you could come across it or if you've been exposed to it in the past.

What makes asbestos so dangerous?

Asbestos is a natural mineral that can be broken down into fibrous parts and added to products to make them stronger. Both fire and chemical resistant, it was frequently used in building materials like insulating boards, ceiling tiles, and roofing panels.

Asbestos only poses a threat when it's in a poor condition, either because it has started to deteriorate or because it has been damaged. When the fibres become loose, they are released into the air, and that puts people nearby at risk of inhaling them.

Breathing in asbestos fibres can cause serious, even fatal, health conditions, but this is generally only seen in people who have had significant exposure over long periods.

The health risks associated with asbestos

There are four main health risks associated with asbestos that you should be aware of:

  • mesothelioma
  • asbestos-related lung cancer
  • asbestosis
  • pleural thickening

These conditions can take decades to develop after the point of exposure, and often by the time the patient has been diagnosed, it is already too late to treat.

Mesothelioma

This is a type of incurable cancer that affects the lining of the lungs (pleura) and the lower digestive tract - it is almost always attributed to asbestos exposure. There were 2,369 deaths from mesothelioma in 2019, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

Asbestos-related lung cancer

This is just the same as lung cancer caused by smoking. It is estimated that for every death from mesothelioma, there is another caused by asbestos-related lung cancer.

Asbestosis

Asbestosis causes scarring of the lungs and is found in people who have been exposed to asbestos over long periods of time. It is a progressive disease that leads to shortness of breath which gets worse over time, and in serious cases it can be fatal.

There were 490 deaths from asbestosis in 2019 (where asbestosis was mentioned on the death certificate - not including deaths attributed to mesothelioma).

Pleural thickening

Pleural thickening describes the thickening and swelling of the lining of the lungs, after exposure to asbestos. It can cause shortness of breath and discomfort in the chest.

Who is at risk of an asbestos-related condition?

The health risks associated with asbestos are generally contained to people who spend long periods of time working near this hazardous material. This includes the people they live with, because the loose fibres can be carried home in their hair and on their clothes.

Asbestos was used to make thousands of products that span many industries, but this hazardous material was most frequently used by the building trade after World War II.

As an example, some of the professions that could have been exposed to asbestos in the past, and those still at risk today, include:

  • carpenters (shipbuilding, particularly)
  • joiners
  • electricians
  • plasterers
  • gas engineers
  • plumbers
  • roofers
  • demolition workers
  • computer and data installers
  • telephone engineers

It's important to remember that you're more at risk of developing a serious asbestos-related health condition if you smoke.

What should you do if you've been exposed to asbestos?

If you think you may have been exposed to asbestos - now or in the past - and you have the symptoms of a related condition, then you should make an appointment to see your GP. Your symptoms might include a cough, shortness of breath, and/or a tight chest.

Your doctor will update your medical records with details of when and how long you were exposed to asbestos. They will discuss with you some of the ways you can manage your symptoms and may refer you to a specialist for additional tests.

You might also find the 'Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum' useful. They offer free and impartial advice on how to claim industrial injuries benefits, and they provide a friendly place to meet people in a similar situation to you.

How can you limit the health risks associated with asbestos?

Thanks to better awareness and more training, you are now far less likely to be in a situation where you are exposed to asbestos for long periods of time. If you work in any of the professions we've listed above, then we recommend you undertake some basic awareness training that covers how to avoid disturbing asbestos in your day-to-day role.

Knowing what to look out for and how to deal with an emergency could save your life.

Those who need to disturb asbestos because their work requires it, should undertake a more advanced level of training to keep themselves and their colleagues safe. With the right training you can minimise the health risks associated with asbestos exposure.

If you're working on a commercial building ask to see the management survey that lists the location of any asbestos containing materials already identified. You should always assume that not all the asbestos has been found and remain vigilant.

What to do if you think you've found asbestos

If you think you've found asbestos and you're unsure what to do next, do not attempt to remove or repair it yourself. Some types of asbestos can only be handled by a licensed contractor with the right training and equipment to do the job safely.

At Asbestos Gone, our specialists are accredited by the industry's highest awarding bodies for property assessment, surveys, and removal and disposal of asbestos.

Better training and more awareness is helping to minimise the health risks associated with asbestos exposure, but there is still work to be done. Being aware of incurable asbestos-related conditions, like mesothelioma, is the first step to mitigating your risk. For asbestos advice, contact Asbestos Gone - our telephone lines are open 24/7.

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