Guide to Asbestos

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, mined in Australia, Canada and South Africa during the 20th century. Its heat and sound resistant properties made it ideal for use in the manufacture of a wide range of products from pipe insulation, flooring materials, cement roofing and insulatory coatings to toilet cisterns, artex wall coatings and its wide range of use has resulted in asbestos now being present in some form in all but the newest of premises – its use was only completely prohibited in 1999.

Asbestos is a Class One carcinogen but is only dangerous when the microscopic fibres are released into the air and breathed in. There is usually a long delay between the first exposure to asbestos dust and the onset of disease. This can be between 15 and 60 years. One estimate is that in the past 70 years up to 11 million people have been exposed to asbestos (Kasperson and Pijawka, 2005)1.

Where can Asbestos be Found?

Asbestos can be present in various forms and differing levels of content in over 2000 common substances, ranging from pipe insulation and cement roofing to suspended ceiling tiles, artex coating, vinyl flooring, roofing felts, concrete pipe and sheet material, architectural panels, joint and taping compounds, heating system insulation, floor tiles, electrical wires and cables, paints and plumbing fixtures, bath panels, soffits, sink pads, window putty, window surrounds and more.

Local authority and social housing built in the 1960s and 1970s commonly has asbestos in water tanks, artex coatings on the ceiling, asbestos insulation board in electricity cupboards, under staircases, service ducts and heating ducts (CES, 2005)2.

Asbestos is still present in a wide variety of buildings, including hospitals, factories, warehouse, offices, schools and homes, often in walls and ceilings as well as in lagging around steam pipes and boilers. A total prohibition on asbestos being used in the construction industry came into force in 1999, but most older buildings in the UK have some asbestos containing materials (ACMs).

Exposure to Asbestos

Exposure can occur when workers disturb ACMs during maintenance work or in the refurbishment and demolition of buildings, when asbestos fibres become airborne and inhaled. Therefore, most ACMs pose little risk unless they are disturbed in a way that results in the release of fibres, such as drilling corrugated cement roofs or disturbing ceiling tiles with an asbestos content.

How Prevalent is Asbestos?

Asbestos containing materials are said to exist in more than 10 million UK buildings (Gravelsons et al, 2004)3. The HSE estimates 1.5 million workplaces contain asbestos. Strict regulations now exist to prevent dangerous levels of exposure. If a building has been built before 2000 there is a possibility that it could contain asbestos.

What are the Dangers of Asbestos?

Asbestos can be a serious hazard to health and for this reason its use has declined considerably in recent years. Asbestos exposure can cause serious diseases, including mesothelioma and asbestos lung cancer. If you breathe asbestos fibres into your lungs, some of the fibres will be deposited in the air passages and on the cells that make up your lungs. Some fibres remain trapped in the lungs, causing severe respiratory damage.

Fibres that clear the lungs are carried away in a layer of mucus to the throat, where they are swallowed into the stomach. They may become stuck in the membranes lining the stomach or intestines, or be distributed throughout the body via the blood. Wherever the fibres are, they have the potential to promote genetic 'errors' in cell division that can lead to cancer.

For more details on the health risks posed by exposure to asbestos see our Asbestos Diseases page.

Types of Asbestos

There are three common types of asbestos that are mainly found in the UK, these are:

Chrysotile, also known as white asbestos, is a member of the Serpentine group, so-named because the fibre is curly. Chrysotile fibres are the most flexible of all asbestos fibres. Chrysotile fibres can withstand the fiercest heat but are so soft and flexible that they can be spun and woven as easily as cotton. Resistance to alkaline attack makes chrysotile a useful reinforcing material in asbestos-cement building products. Chrysotile was banned in the UK in 1999.

Chrysotile was traditionally the most widely used of all asbestos types, accounting for approximately 95% of asbestos mined annually. Like the other forms of asbestos, chrysotile can absorb organic materials such as resins and polymers and can be used to strengthen particulates such as cement.

Amosite, also known as brown asbestos, is a member of the Amphibole group. Its harsh, spiky fibres have good tensile strength and resistance to heat. In buildings, amosite was used for anti-condensation and acoustic purposes. On structural steel, it was used for fire protection.

Crocidolite, also known as blue asbestos, is a member of the Amphibole group. The needle like fibres are the strongest of all asbestos fibres and have a high resistance to acids.

Crocidolite was used in yarn and rope lagging from the 1880s until the mid 1960s and in preformed thermal insulation from the mid 1920s until 1950. The high bulk volume of crocidolite makes it suitable for use in sprayed insulation; a product which was first manufactured in this country in 1931.

Crocidolite is known to be the most lethal of all the asbestos types. The import of crocidolite peaked in 1950, fell by 25% in 1960 and by 88% in 1970. The 'import, supply and use of crude, fibre, flake, powder or waste crocidolite or amosite' wasn’t actually banned until the Asbestos (Prohibitions) Regulations of 1985 came into force, although strict guidelines had regulated its use since 1969.

Other asbestos types In addition to those noted above there are three additional, less commonly used types of asbestos which are known as Tremolite, Actinolite and Anthophylite.

The Regulation is Not an Option – it's the Law

Make sure that you have your asbestos register in place by contacting Trident Surveying today. Only then can you breathe easy.

1 Kaperson, R.E. and K.D. Pijawka. 2005. 'Societal Response to Hazards and Major Hazard Events: Comparing Natural and Technological Disasters', in Kaperson, R.E. and J.X. Kasperson (eds.), The Social Contours of Risk: Volume II: Risk Analysis, Corporations and the Globalization. Earthscan, London.

2 CES. 2005. 'Asbestos is a Deadly Substance'. 31st December 2005.

3 Gravelsons, B.; Hawes, W.; Jakubowski, S.; Kent, A.; Lowe J. (Chairman); Macnair, A.; Michaels, D.; Morton, A.; Sanders, D.; Towell, P.; Whiting, A.; Widdows, J. and Williams, A. (2004) UK Asbestos – The Definitive Guide (accessed 27th January 2013).
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