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Knowledge Base » Health and Safety » The Hidden Dangers of Asbestos: Health Implications and Risks

The Hidden Dangers of Asbestos: Health Implications and Risks

Asbestos is no longer used in the construction of new buildings in the UK. However, it was a commonly used building material in the past due to its fire-resistant properties and durability. Many buildings which were constructed before the year 2000 may still contain asbestos in various forms, such as in insulation, roofing and flooring.

The UK has strict regulations in place regarding the management and removal of asbestos in order to minimise the associated health risks. The importation, supply and use of all asbestos has been banned in the UK since 1999. 

Understanding Asbestos

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral fibre that has been used in various construction and industrial applications; it is known for its unique properties. It is resistant to heat, fire and many chemicals, as well as being very durable and flexible. As a result, asbestos was once a widely used material in insulation, roofing, fireproofing, and various other common products.

Asbestos is generally divided into two sub-groups: serpentine and amphiboles. Serpentine asbestos (chrysotile or white asbestos) was the most commonly used type of asbestos. 

As asbestos is known for its strength, heat resistance and insulating properties, it has previously been used for:

  • Construction materials – asbestos was commonly used in construction materials such as roofing shingles, cladding and cement pipes. It was useful for its durability and fire resistance.
  • Insulation – asbestos was widely used for insulation purposes in buildings, ships and industrial facilities. It was commonly found in materials such as asbestos blankets, asbestos paper and asbestos-containing sprays.
  • Fireproofing – asbestos-containing materials were used for fireproofing purposes in buildings, especially in the form of spray-applied coatings.
  • Textiles – asbestos fibres were used in textiles for their heat-resistant properties. This included fireproof clothing, gloves, and other items of protective clothing.
  • Automobile parts – asbestos was used in various automobile components, including brake pads and linings, clutch facings and gaskets. It was useful due to its heat resistance and friction properties.
  • Flooring – asbestos was present in some vinyl flooring and floor tiles. It was used as it provided durability and was fire resistant.
  • Pipes and boilers – asbestos was used in the manufacture of pipes and boiler insulation materials.

The importation, supply and use of all asbestos has been banned in the UK since 1999. Amphibole (blue and brown) asbestos has been banned in the UK since 1985, as this type is even more hazardous than serpentine (white) asbestos. Norway banned the use of asbestos in 1984, making it one of the early adopters of such regulations. Various other countries around the world have also banned the importation and use of asbestos due to the serious health risks associated with its use.

There are three main types of asbestos:

  • Blue (crocidolite).
  • Brown (amosite).
  • White (chrysotile).

Exposure to all three types of asbestos is hazardous and has been linked to serious health risks. None of the three types of asbestos can be used, sold or imported into the UK.

dangers of asbestos

Health Implications

Asbestos is not considered to be harmful when in large pieces and undamaged; however, when asbestos-containing materials are disturbed or damaged, microscopic fibres are released into the air. These can then be inhaled or ingested which poses significant health risks. 

Inhalation of asbestos fibres can occur when asbestos-containing materials deteriorate or are disturbed, releasing microscopic particles into the air. Once inhaled, these fibres can become lodged in the lungs, which can cause inflammation and scarring over time. Breathing in asbestos can lead to a condition called asbestosis which leads to an increased susceptibility to cancer.

Types of Asbestos-Related Diseases

Exposure to asbestos can lead to serious health issues, including:

  • Lung cancer – exposure to asbestos increases the risk of developing lung cancer, particularly among people who smoke. Lung cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the lungs. The lungs are the respiratory organs that take oxygen in when you inhale and release carbon dioxide when you exhale. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. In the UK, lung cancer has high mortality rates. Cancer Research UK found that between 2016 and 2018 there were 48,549 new lung cancer diagnoses.
  • Other respiratory diseases – asbestos exposure can contribute to other respiratory problems, including pleural plaques and pleurisy. Pleurisy is inflammation of the sheet-like layers that cover the lungs. The most common symptom of pleurisy is a sharp pain in the chest when breathing deeply. Sometimes the pain can also be felt in the shoulder.
  • Asbestosis – long-term exposure to asbestos fibres can cause scarring of the lung tissue, a condition known as asbestosis. This can cause symptoms including difficulty breathing, coughing, and permanent lung damage.
  • Mesothelioma – asbestos exposure is a well-established cause of mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer which affects the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart. The symptoms are similar to those of many other respiratory or lung conditions. Mesothelioma kills over 2,500 people each year. The symptoms of mesothelioma include chest pain, a dry cough, fatigue, fever, muscle weakness, shortness of breath, swelling of the face and arms and unexplained weight loss. Symptoms can also vary between people.

Occupational Exposure

Occupational exposure to asbestos refers to the potential contact and inhalation of asbestos fibres in the workplace. When asbestos-containing materials are disturbed or deteriorate, microscopic asbestos fibres can become airborne. Inhaling these fibres over an extended period of time can lead to serious health issues, including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

To reduce the risks associated with occupational exposure to asbestos, strict safety measures and regulations have been implemented in many countries around the world. These include the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), strict rules around ventilation, containment of asbestos-containing materials, and adherence to guidelines for safe removal and disposal of asbestos.

It is crucial for employers and workers in industries where asbestos exposure is a potential risk to be aware of the associated hazards, to follow safety protocols, and to undergo regular health monitoring in order to detect any early signs of asbestos-related diseases. 

Occupational settings where asbestos exposure may occur include:

  • Construction – asbestos was commonly used in construction materials such as insulation, roofing, flooring and cement.
  • Shipbuilding – asbestos was extensively used in shipbuilding for insulation and fireproofing.
  • Automotive industry – asbestos was historically used in brake linings and clutch facings.
  • Mining and milling – workers involved in the extraction and processing of asbestos may be exposed to the fibres.
  • Textile industry – asbestos was used in the production of fire-resistant fabrics.
  • Asbestos removal and demolition – workers involved in the removal or demolition of buildings containing asbestos may be at risk if proper safety measures are not followed.
hidden dangers of asbestos

Environmental and Secondary Exposure

Environmental exposure to asbestos can happen when asbestos fibres are naturally present in the air, water and soil. Asbestos-containing materials in buildings, insulation or other products can also break down over time due to weathering and erosion, releasing asbestos fibres into the environment. Environmental exposure can also occur through mining. Mining activities, especially in regions with asbestos deposits, can contribute to environmental asbestos exposure. 

Secondary exposure can occur when workers who handle asbestos directly in industries such as construction, shipbuilding and asbestos mining can carry asbestos fibres home on their clothing, skin or hair, meaning they may unintentionally expose their family members to asbestos. Disturbing asbestos-containing materials during renovations or demolitions can release fibres into the air, potentially exposing the people in the nearby environment.

Previously asbestos was used in various consumer products such as talcum powder, insulation and car brake pads. People using or handling these products could have been exposed to asbestos fibres.

Asbestos Removal and Regulations

The Control of Asbestos Regulations UK lays down the legal requirements for managing asbestos in the workplace. This legislation includes guidelines for identifying and assessing asbestos risks, as well as procedures for dealing with asbestos-containing materials. It is the primary legislation that outlines the legal requirements for managing asbestos in the UK. Workers who are involved in asbestos removal are required to undergo proper training and certification. Training programmes cover the safe handling of asbestos, removal techniques, and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE). Workers who are likely to come into contact with asbestos during their work are required to undergo asbestos awareness training. This training aims to educate them about the risks associated with asbestos and how to avoid exposure.

The removal and replacement of asbestos should be carried out by trained and certified professionals due to the health risks associated with asbestos exposure. Asbestos removal and replacement is not an easy process in itself and there are several steps that need to be followed, including:

  • An assessment and survey should be completed – before any removal or replacement work begins, a comprehensive asbestos survey is conducted by certified inspectors in order to identify the location, type and condition of asbestos-containing materials in the building.
  • Notification and regulation compliance – the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) must be notified at least 14 days before starting any asbestos removal work.
  • Isolation and preparation of the area – the work area is isolated in order to prevent asbestos fibres from spreading. Workers are required to wear PPE, including respiratory masks and disposable coveralls.
  • Wetting – asbestos is often wet to minimise the release of fibres during removal.
  • Removal – trained and licensed asbestos removal contractors will remove the asbestos materials using only specialised tools and techniques.
  • Cleaning – the area is thoroughly cleaned using wet methods and HEPA vacuum cleaners in order to ensure any remaining asbestos fibres are fully removed.
  • Waste disposal process – asbestos waste is transported to licensed disposal sites using only approved transport methods.
  • A final inspection is completed – this is to confirm the successful removal of the asbestos.

All asbestos removal work must comply with HSE regulations. 

The material used to replace the asbestos will depend upon what it is being used for. Some examples of materials that are used instead of asbestos include:

  • Fibreglass – fibreglass is a popular substitute for asbestos in insulation and fireproofing materials. It is a lightweight material and has good thermal insulating properties.
  • Mineral wool – made from natural or synthetic minerals, this is another insulation material that can replace asbestos. It is used for its fire-resistant and thermal insulation properties.
  • Cellulose fibre – made from recycled paper, cardboard or wood fibres, cellulose fibre is commonly used as an insulation material in buildings. It is environmentally friendly and is a safe alternative to asbestos.
  • Ceramic fibre – in high-temperature applications, ceramic fibres are used as a substitute for asbestos. They offer good thermal resistance and are used in a variety of industrial settings.
  • PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) – in certain applications, PVC materials may be used as a substitute for asbestos. PVC is commonly used in pipes, roofing and other construction materials.
Asbestos dangers

Raising Awareness and Prevention

Raising awareness about asbestos is vital due to the significant health risks associated with exposure to it. It is crucial to continue raising awareness in order to protect public health, prevent new cases of asbestos-related diseases, and ensure the proper handling and removal of asbestos-containing materials. 

There have been several public health awareness raising campaigns in the UK including:

  • Hidden killer campaign from 2008-2012 – this campaign was launched by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), and aimed to raise awareness about the risks of asbestos exposure. It targeted construction workers and maintenance staff, who were at the highest risk of coming into contact with asbestos at work. The campaign included television and radio advertisements, as well as printed materials, in order to educate the general public. The Health and Safety Executive still regularly provides information and resources to the public about asbestos risks.
  • The Asbestos in Schools Campaign in 2018 – the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) launched a campaign in order to raise awareness about the presence of asbestos in schools and therefore the potential risks to students and staff. The campaign aimed to encourage the government to address the issue of asbestos in educational institutions.
  • Take 5 and Stay Alive Campaign in 2012 – this campaign by the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association (ARCA) focused on the importance of taking safety precautions when working in environments where asbestos may be present.
  • Mesothelioma UK awareness campaigns – Mesothelioma UK is a charity dedicated to supporting those affected by mesothelioma, and runs various awareness campaigns. These campaigns aim to inform the public about the risks of asbestos exposure, raise funds for research, and provide support to people affected by asbestos-related diseases.

If you know you have been exposed to asbestos materials or have a history of contact with asbestos-containing materials, it is advisable for you to tell your doctor about asbestos exposure as soon as possible. Early treatment of asbestos-related illnesses is key. With surgery, patients with stage 1 mesothelioma have a life expectancy of 21 months compared to those with stage 4, which is the most advanced form. Those with stage 4 have a life expectancy of 12 months, according to Mesothelioma UK.

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About the author

Claire Vain

Claire Vain

Claire graduated with a degree in Social Work in 2010. She is currently enjoying her career moving in a different direction, working as a professional writer and editor. Outside of work Claire loves to travel, spend time with her family and two dogs and she practices yoga at every opportunity!

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