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What does asbestos do to you?

For many who aren’t in the know, asbestos may seem like a thing of the past. However, despite the mineral being around for decades, asbestos is not only still present in many homes across the UK, but it’s something that can still cause health complications – particularly if you’re unaware of what it is, what it looks like and what it can do. To help you become aware of asbestos and its effects, today we are proving an in-depth guide into what asbestos is, how it can affect your health and what you should do if you are exposed to asbestos. This guide explains how exposure can lead to asbestosis as well as other illnesses.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos has a long and complex history – but what is it? A naturally occurring mineral, asbestos found its way into thousands of homes across the UK in the 1930’s and continued to be used for many years until 1985 when it was banned in the UK.

According to the British Lung Foundation, asbestos is a term used ‘for a group of minerals made of microscopic fibres’ that can damage the lungs if breathed in. This umbrella term used to describe a collection of six minerals that can be broken down into their individual scientific names:

  • Chrysotile – white asbestos
  • Amosite– brown asbestos
  • Crocidolite– blue asbestos
  • Anthophyllite– found as a contaminant within chrysotile asbestos
  • Actinolite– found as a contaminant within chrysotile asbestos
  • Tremolite– found as a contaminant within chrysotile asbestos
white asbestos fibres

Why was asbestos so popular?

When being used, asbestos was a very popular application in insulation, piping, ceilings, roof shingles and many more. But why was asbestos so sought after?

Despite its harmful potential, asbestos also offers some pretty beneficial properties that made it a cheap and reliable solution in building and construction:

  • Highly flexible
  • Ductile
  • Incombustible
  • Low thermal conductivity
  • Resistant to chemical attack

Pure asbestos can also be made into vital materials such as paper, cloth and rope – thus it is much more common than you may initially think and could be found in many of our everyday items. It is important to note that although this was certainly the case back when asbestos was used on a huge scale, it is not so likely that you’ll find asbestos in regular everyday items now.

Asbestos was a very popular building material due to it being fire proof and extremely versatile.

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Why asbestos is harmful to health

Unfortunately, back when asbestos was so popular there was very little knowledge about the potential risks of the mineral. It took many years of use before people realised the risks – and many deaths occurred as a result of asbestos exposure.

But what makes something so seemingly useful, so dangerous? Ironically, the same properties that made asbestos such a highly praised building material, are the same properties which make it so harmful.

One of the key reasons asbestos is so harmful is due to the way the mineral fibres split. This happens lengthways, making the fibres more accessible to the furthest part of the lungs, therefore making it very easy to inhale, and impossible to remove from our system once breathed in.

It was because of these effects that asbestos was banned in the UK in 1985. However, despite being banned on multiple occasions in the past, the U.S. and other countries do still use asbestos in certain materials.

The UK 1985 asbestos ban

In today’s modern world, asbestos is widely considered to be a “hidden killer”. This was not always the case and it took a number of years of exposure for people to understand the harmful effects of the mineral. Because asbestos can be present without any signs or initial symptoms at all it can wreak havoc on workers and residents without warning.

It wasn’t until 1985 that crocidolite and amosite asbestos was banned here in the UK construction industry. Later in 1999 asbestos was fully banned to prevent fatalities due to the toxicity of the fibres.

Asbestos was fully banned in the UK in 1999.

Hugely popular amongst the construction industries, asbestos offered a cheap building material that proved useful in many applications, and so typically the first to become affected by asbestos were those working on construction sites and in building operations. With more of the same groups of people becoming ill and even dying, asbestos slowly became a point of concern. This was not reflected in its use, as it continued to grow in popularity across the 20’s and 30’s.

The first case of asbestosis was diagnosed in 1924, which led to an official awareness of the dangers of asbestos. However, use of the material continued to grow until eventually, its use led to the first asbestos industry regulations being passed in 1931.

Despite regulations, shockingly, by the year 2000, there has been over 4500 asbestos related deaths in the UK alone. Due to this, the release of asbestos fibres into the air in a quantity to damage health is now reportable under RIDDOR.

How does asbestos spread?

You may be wondering how something that was used for so many years could still effect people in todays society? Well, the answer is quite simple, and highlights the importance of awareness for those who may not know much about asbestos already.

Asbestos is spread when disrupted and is then incredibly easy to be inhaled. Much like any dusty material, when touched or moved it gives off fibres, and in the case of asbestos, these fibres can prove incredibly harmful. When removing asbestos, specialist companies take a huge number of precautions including full face masks, body suits and enclosures for different areas so that fibres cannot spread.

asbestos removal in full ppe

Who can asbestos affect?

Although asbestos first presented itself mostly in those who had spent time working with the mineral in construction, asbestos related health issues have affected a range of people – including residents of homes built using asbestos.

The most commonly affected people include the following:

  • Asbestos miners and factory workers
  • Asbestos removal workers
  • Vehicle maintenance and repair of older vehicles, aircraft and other modes of transport
  • Maintenance staff
  • Workers in construction, demolition and refurbishment
  • Shipbuilders
  • Firefighters
  • Boilermakers
  • Tradesman such as builders, joiners, carpenters, plumbers, plasterers and electricians
builder working on a roof

Once inhaled, asbestos cannot be removed from the lungs.

What are the symptoms of asbestos related diseases?

There are a range of harmful diseases associated with asbestos poisoning. These include the following:

  • Asbestosis– widespread scarring of the lungs
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – a common complication of asbestosis
  • Lung cancer– asbestos can affect the outer lining of the lungs or the internal portions)
  • Mesothelioma– Aggressive cancer directly related to asbestos, this usually affects the lining of the lungs
  • Other asbestos related cancers– such as ovarian cancer and laryngeal cancer
  • Non-malignant pleural disease – such as diffuse pleural thickening, pleural plaques and pleural effusions

Asbestosis

The symptoms associated with asbestosis typically include the following:

  • Shortness of breath
  • A persistent dry cough
  • Wheezing
  • Swollen fingers
  • Fatigue
  • Blood in the sputum
  • Crackly chest

Because asbestosis takes such a long time to take hold, many people can live symptom free for anywhere between 20 and 30 years! It is for this reason that most people who die from asbestosis are in there 60’s and 70’s or even older.

Whilst symptoms may not start for a number of years, when they do finally begin to present, they tend to start off mild and increase in severity over time. This is because asbestosis is a progressive condition and one that lasts a lifetime.

Asbestos Fibres on Cells Within Lungs - asbestosis

COPD

The symptoms associated with COPD typically include the following:

  • Mucus coughs
  • Wheezing
  • Low immunity – often getting sick
  • Tightness of the chest
  • Weight loss
  • Edema – swollen feet, legs or ankles
  • Shortness of breath

Like most asbestos related diseases, COPD is a progressive condition which will get worse with time.

Asbestos related lung cancer

The symptoms associated with asbestos related lung cancer typically include the following:

  • Coughing and wheezing
  • Chest pains
  • Breathlessness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Blood in sputum
  • Recurring chest infections

Mesothelioma

The symptoms associated with Mesothelioma typically include the following:

  • Breathlessness
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue and tiredness
  • Fever and sweating
  • Blood in the sputum

In 2013 approximately 2,538 people in the UK died from mesothelioma and a further 2,595 deaths in 2017.

mesothelioma caused by asbestosis

Other asbestos related cancers

In 2009 a study revealed the link between asbestos exposure and ovarian cancer, with researchers discovering the potential for asbestos fibres to reach the organs through the bloodstream.

Although there are other risk factors associated with laryngeal cancer such as drinking alcohol and smoking, there has been a proven connection between asbestos fibres and this type of cancer occurring. The length of time that an individual is exposed to asbestos the higher the risk of contracting this type of cancer.

Non-malignant pleural diseases

Known as benign asbestos related conditions, there are a number of lung deformities that can occur as a result of exposure to asbestos. One study done revealed that out of 231 asbestos-exposed workers, 99 of them developed at least one benign lung deformity after asbestos exposure.

Pleural effusions present in fluid build-ups between the pleural layers in the lungs. Although not strictly a side effect of asbestos, it is most commonly linked to the mineral and although not immediately life threatening it can be very harmful if gone unnoticed as these fluid mounds can build up over time.

Pleural plaques are common side effects of asbestos exposure and consist of calcified mounds on the pleura. Unlike many other asbestos related diseases, this is not incredibly harmful, although there is potential there for the build-ups to become cancerous.

Diffuse pleural thickening present in lesions across the pleural lining which can result in pleural thickening. This thickening can have a direct impact on how efficiently the lungs function, and in some cases (although rare) it can be fatal due to restricted airflow.

What should you do if exposed to asbestos?

Whilst you may feel it unlikely that you will come into contact with asbestos, it is still entirely possible, especially if you live in a home built anytime before the year 2000. Now that you know what to look out for, and where asbestos is most typically found, the only thing left to know is what to do if you do come into contact with the mineral.

We are not medical professionals, and so the first thing we advise anybody to do in these circumstances is to contact their GP. As we have stated, any serious symptoms are unlikely to present themselves at first, but looking out for coughs, wheezing or shortness of breath can help you spot signs of asbestos poisoning early.

The British Lung Foundation advises that those in contact with asbestos discuss the following points with their GP:

  • Any past or present jobs with an asbestos risk
  • Living with someone who has worked in a job with an asbestos risk
  • DIY or other situations where you might have been exposed to asbestos
  • Ensuring your exposure to asbestos is documented in your medical records
  • Your symptoms and how to relieve them
  • Tests that you may need to have
  • Whether you should see a specialist
GP checking lungs for asbestosis issues

The take home message about asbestos

If you were unfamiliar with asbestos or the associated risks, then hopefully our guide has helped to clear some things up for you. Although the mineral is no longer used in construction here in the UK, there are many homes which are still exposed to the fibres due to the age of the build.

It is for these reasons that awareness of asbestos and the related risks are important to know. If you suspect that you have been affected, or are at risk of being affected by asbestos, then there are some other people (besides your GP) who you should contact:

  • You should make your local council aware if you suspect asbestos in your home
  • You can ring your local office if you suspect asbestos is being used at your work place

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About the author

Fiona Peake

Fiona Peake

Fiona has been writing for a number of years. With a special interest in turning complicated topics into readable, enjoyable words. Fiona has written across a range of subjects from health & safety and education to business and marketing. Outside of work Fiona likes to spend time with her husband and her Romanian rescue dog River, taking him for long walks outdoors, Fiona also likes to go to the gym and relax with a good book.


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What does asbestos do to you?

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