If you were to ask an analyst the simple question ‘what is asbestos?’ they would tell you that it refers to a group of six types of naturally occurring minerals. They would be able to rattle-off the names:
- amosite (grunerite)
They would also be able to tell you that whilst in their natural form they appear as any rock would do. But with a certain beauty.
Chrysotile asbestos vein sinuosity by Flickr user James St John
Actinolite amphibole by Flickr user James St John
The important difference to ‘normal’ rock is structural – when you grind it down, it forms fibres rather than grains or dust. And fibres are very useful.
Asbestos the miracle product
When you add asbestos fibres to another product – for example roofing or pipe insulation – they lend some magical properties:
- fire resistance
- chemical resistance
- tensile strength
- abrasion resistance
- low thermal conductivity
- low electrical conductivity
- low biodegradability
- sound proofing
With its low tech, comparatively cheap method of production asbestos was considered the miracle building material product. It could be used to make buildings strong, warm, fire resistant and quiet. Until of course it was revealed as a the biggest health hazard of the last and probably this century.
Why is asbestos dangerous?
Just like all fibres are useful, they are all dangerous. The shape of a fibre allows it to fly like an arrow past all of your body’s defences when you breathe them in. They can penetrate deep into your lungs where they do physical damage.
The same reasons that make asbestos a great building material, also mean that when we breathe in asbestos fibres, our bodies can do absolutely nothing to breakdown, degrade or otherwise eject them. This makes them far worse than other fibres. For many years there has been a misapprehension that a single fibre is all it takes to kill someone. This ‘one fibre kills’ line has been discredited in favour of a risk assessment based approach , we do know that asbestos fibres have been the biggest industrial killer of the past century. They will most likely be the biggest industrial killer of this century too. Around 5000 workers die from illnesses caused by breathing in asbestos every year in the UK alone.
How common is asbestos in the UK?
As far as day to day practicality is concerned – ‘asbestos’ refers to the actual product that has been installed in your home or place of work. Because the ‘benefits’ of asbestos were so far reaching and due to its relative cheapness – the construction and building products it was used in were virtually unlimited.
- Insulating panels
- Cement corrugated sheeting
- Guttering and downpipes
- Pipe insulation
- Plastic floor tiles
- Gaskets and electrical insulators
The list goes on – with even cigarette filters and fake snow using asbestos.
With the number of different products so extensive it’s no wonder that buildings constructed before the early 1980s almost certainly contain asbestos. The ban on asbestos only came into force in 2000, and even properties built as late as 1999 could have some asbestos in them.
What to do if you find asbestos
In the UK we have a long history and genuine expertise in managing the risk from asbestos. It’s not always best to remove asbestos when you find it.
Find out more about what to do if you find asbestos in this article by our CEO Nick Garland.
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