What is asbestos, and why was it used?

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A once-popular material, asbestos was used to make thousands of products until its link with lung cancer was finally confirmed. Though the dangers of asbestos are well documented, some countries continue to export it in huge quantities every year. In an attempt to understand more about it, we ask: what is asbestos, and why was it used?

What is asbestos? 

Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral that is made up of small fibres. Inhaling these fibres can cause irreparable damage to the lungs. 

The three most common types of asbestos in the UK are:  

  • blue (crocidolite) 
  • white (chrysotile) 
  • brown (amosite) 

Asbestos can be traced back as far as the Stone Age when it was used to strengthen ceramic pots, but it was in the mid-1800s that it started being mined and produced on an industrial scale.  

Its link to lung cancer was first discovered in the 1930s, then later, other health conditions were also connected to asbestos.  

Important medical data on asbestos was reportedly covered up for many years by industry giants in the US. It wasn't until the 1960s that the effects of asbestos exposure were publicly confirmed. 

Why was asbestos used? 

Asbestos is not only strong, but it's also heat-resistant, so it was often used for insulation and fire-proofing. 

It was particularly popular in the building industry from 1920 to the late 1980s, and it is still being discovered in commercial and residential properties across the UK. 

Although it was used to make thousands of products, asbestos is hard to identify. It was often just one component that went into making something else, and there is no way of telling that these products contain asbestos.  

Just some of the items that can contain asbestos, include: 

  • vinyl floor tiles 
  • popcorn ceiling (acoustic ceiling) 
  • fire blankets 
  • brake pads and shoes
  • rope seals, gaskets, and paper  
  • interior fire doors 
  • gloves and other protective equipment and clothing
  • insulation board (asbestos insulation board or AIB) 
  • asbestos cement sheets or pipes
  • sprayed-on textured wall coatings, like Artex 
  • toilet seats and cisterns 

Though it's alarming to think that there might be undiscovered asbestos in your home or workplace, it's only dangerous when it's damaged or deteriorating.

If you think you've found asbestos, contact an asbestos removal specialist for help. Attempting to remove the asbestos yourself, puts everyone nearby at risk of exposure.  

What is asbestos - Is it dangerous? 

When it's in good condition, asbestos doesn't present much of a risk. It's at its most dangerous when its loose fibres can be inhaled by people nearby because the material is crumbling or breaking apart. 

Breathing in these small particles, which are often invisible to the naked eye, causes permanent damage to the lungs, and it can prove fatal. 

The symptoms of asbestos-related health conditions can take years to show up, and cases are continuing to rise, as more and more people are being diagnosed. 

According to figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), up to 5,000 people still die from asbestos-related diseases in the UK every year.   

You can read more on the health risks associated with asbestos on our blog.  

Case study – Graham Ansell  

In 2006, Graham Ansell was diagnosed with mesothelioma – an aggressive type of cancer that is almost exclusively caused by asbestos inhalation. 

He'd been a carpenter since the age of 16, and not knowing how dangerous asbestos was at the time, he didn't wear any protective clothing or take any other precautions.

When Graham went to his GP with a mild cough and breathlessness, he had no idea that he might be suffering from a severe condition. He died a year later, just days before his 49th birthday. 

Today much more is understood about the dangers of asbestos, and yet 20 tradespeople still die every week from exposure to this deadly material. To stop that figure rising, more needs to be done to raise awareness. 

The HSE is sharing stories of people, like Graham, in an attempt to encourage tradespeople and other 'at-risk' groups to take the proper precautions when working with asbestos.  

Is asbestos still used? 

Asbestos was banned in the UK in 1999, and this is the case for most other countries in the developed world. However, there are places where asbestos is still being produced and used. 

According to figures published in 2013, the countries exporting the most asbestos are: 

  1. Russia 
  2. Kazakhstan 
  3. Brazil 
  4. China 
  5. India 

Though it has been banned for over twenty years in the UK, asbestos can still be found in buildings that were erected or refurbished before the year 2000. 

The owners and 'duty holders' for commercial buildings are now legally required to manage the risk of asbestos. That includes identifying and recording its location and managing its ongoing presence.  

What to do if you find asbestos 

If you think you've uncovered asbestos in your home or workplace, do not attempt to remove it yourself – call an asbestos specialist for advice on what to do next. 

The only way to formally identify asbestos is to send away a sample of the material for testing in an accredited laboratory. If the asbestos is in good condition, then it may not be worth disturbing it to have these checks done. 

If it's already damaged or deteriorating it will need to be identified before a decision can be made about whether to repair or remove it. 

If you're a homeowner planning to have work done on your property, it's up to you to tell the tradespeople involved that there is asbestos on-site. This gives them the chance to put measures in place to protect themselves and other people nearby. 

The bottom line – what is asbestos? 

Asbestos is a naturally strong and fire-resistant mineral, and before it was banned, it was a popular building material. Today, it's still being discovered in properties up and down the UK. 

If you need help identifying or removing asbestos from your property, contact the team at Asbestos Gone. We're available over the phone 24/7 to put your mind at rest, with answers to questions like 'what is asbestos?' and 'how do I identify it?'

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