What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous material which was regularly used in buildings from the 1950s until the late 1990s. It is still found today in many buildings, including domestic and non domestic premises, schools and hospitals. If disturbed, it can be a killer.
Asbestos was widely used as an insulation and fire proofing solution. In particular, it found its way into products like ceiling tiles, pipe insulation, boilers, sprayed coatings and garage roof tiles.
Inhaling loose asbestos fibres is known to cause several serious and even fatal diseases. So there was no surprise when it was finally banned in 1999.
The three main types of asbestos are blue, brown and white asbestos, which were used in countless building products. But as it was often mixed with other materials it can be hard to know if you’ve found it or not.
You may often come across asbestos while you are working, but as long as the asbestos is well maintained and not disturbed or disintegrating it doesn’t present an immediate risk to your health.
Different types of asbestos need to be dealt with in different ways. The most important thing you can do to avoid unnecessary risks is to arm yourself with the correct level of training before you start work.
Even small levels of exposure, if repeated day after day, can lead to diseases later in life. So don’t start work if you’re not sure how to handle it safely.
To help you identify asbestos, take a look at our Asbestos Gallery showing photographs of typical asbestos-containing materials that can still be found in buildings today.
Who is most at risk?
Asbestos is not a thing of the past, despite what many people believe. It’s still present in millions of homes and commercial properties across the UK and, when disturbed, it’s a killer.
People who work in the trades are most at risk of exposure. Asbestos kills 20 tradespeople in the UK every week, including 4 plumbers 6 electricians and 8 joiners (source: HSE), making it the single biggest cause of work-related deaths. It can take between 15-60 years for the symptoms of some asbestos-related diseases to develop. Once diagnosed it’s often too late to do anything.
And it’s more than your life on the line. Turning a blind eye or being unsure about the risks presented by asbestos is not just a risk to your own life and business. Tiny invisible asbestos particles can stick to clothes and tools, meaning that you could be unknowingly putting your family, colleagues and friends at risk.
Conditions caused by asbestos
Mesothelioma – A type of cancer that affects the ‘mesothelium’ – a thin lining in your chest and abdomen. Even low levels of exposure to asbestos can cause it if repeated over time, and unfortunately the disease is incurable.
Asbestos-related lung cancer – It develops in the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs. It can grow within the lung and it can spread outside the lung through the rest of your body.
Asbestosis – A serious type of scarring in the lung caused by high levels of exposure to asbestos fibres. The scarring causes the lungs to shrink, resulting in breathlessness.
Pleural thickening – A problem linked to heavy asbestos exposure. Scarring of the lining of the lung (pleura) covers a large area and the lining thickens and swells. When this happens the lung is squeezed, causing breathlessness and discomfort.
Pleural plaques – Areas of scar tissue on the lining of the lungs (pleura). Usually there are no symptoms and pleural plaques do not cause any long-term health problems.
Have you been exposed to asbestos?
If you think you have might have been exposed to asbestos in the past, it is important that your GP knows. Seek medical advice if you have any symptoms like coughing, shortness of breath or chest pain, and make sure you talk to your GP about:
- Any past or present jobs where you may have been exposed to asbestos
- Living with someone who has worked or works in a job where asbestos is or has been present
- Your symptoms and how to relieve them
- Tests you might need
- Whether you should see a consultant