What is asbestos and why is it dangerous?

Asbestos is a word guaranteed to strike fear into the heart but is it really as dangerous as many suggest?

Used widely within the construction industry in the past, asbestos is still present in many buildings in the UK. We take a look at what asbestos really is and the risks that it presents.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral which is found in various locations around the world but is in particular abundance in South Africa and Canada. Lying within rocks, natural erosion and weathering means that asbestos is regularly absorbed and then breathed in through the air.

specially trained workers removing asbestos from a building

Scientists discovered the mineral more than a century ago, but it was just after the Second World war when its use really started to increase. It was found to contain unique properties such as resistance to water, an indestructibility and being heatproof too.

These characteristics immediately made asbestos sought after in a number of industries, and it was used for lagging, fireproofing, insulation, tiling and cement.

There are many different forms of asbestos, but it’s loosely split into three categories: blue, brown and white asbestos. Each of these categories presents a different risk.

Assessing the danger of asbestos

All asbestos has been linked with an increased risk in certain respiratory conditions as well as cancer, but some are considered to be more dangerous than others.

White asbestos (also known as chrysotile) is believed to be the least dangerous (but this doesn’t mean there’s no risk). It occurs in curly strands which experts think helps the body to expel the fibre from the lungs more easily, thus reducing the danger. Like other forms of asbestos it has been linked to cancer, but typically a greater amount of exposure is required to cause this.

Brown (amosite) and blue (crocidolite) asbestos are considerably riskier, in part due to their stiff, rod-like structure which makes it difficult for the body to get rid of once inhaled. Blue asbestos is particularly dangerous because each individual fibre is whisper-thin, usually no greater than a human hair.

Exposure to any kind of asbestos should be taken seriously and avoided at all costs.

Why is asbestos dangerous?

When asbestos was being hailed as a new wonder material, scientists weren’t aware of the effects it had on the human body. This is partly because many diseases caused by asbestos take years to form so the results only started to become clear about 30-40 years later.

All forms of asbestos have been linked to cancer as well as other lethal and crippling diseases such as mesothelioma and asbestosis.

Although it is a naturally occurring mineral and can be found in the air due to the weathering of rock, the quantities are minute when compared to construction projects. Demolition of buildings or structures containing asbestos can expose individuals to dangerous levels of the fibres.

In the UK, asbestos is no longer permitted to be used for construction, or for any other industry because of the serious health risks it presents.

What to do if you find asbestos

Although it’s no longer used, asbestos could still be present in many older buildings. As long as it remains intact and undamaged, it presents no risk to the people living in the property.

However, if you want to carry out any DIY work, you’ll need to have the asbestos professionally handled and removed as it can’t be disposed of in the same way as other household waste. In addition, special protection is needed when handling the fibre to avoid inhaling asbestos accidentally.

If you’re unsure whether your property contains asbestos, don’t risk your health. Get it checked by demolition experts who can identify the asbestos if any is present, assess the risk and organise removal, if required.

Here at TPC North we have trained specialists in this area that can help you remove asbestos from your premises.

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