Towards the end of the 19th century, asbestos had widespread uses. It was used in the making of concrete, pipes, bricks, cement, pipe insulation, ceiling insulation, flooring and roofing. Its fire-retardant properties were used in many materials that required fire resistant coatings.
The inhalation and close proximity of working with asbestos can cause serious health problems. The first death related to asbestos occurred in 1906. Over the centuries, 1000’s of people have died as a result of exposure to asbestos. This life threatening illnesses affected those who worked in asbestos mines, were involved in the spinning of raw asbestos into yarn, worked in textile factories and were involved in building and construction. Over the war years many died as a result of working on asbestos containing materials that were prevalent on ships, for examples in the pipes and ship fittings. Even persons who were not directly working with asbestos were affected. This included those living in the vicinity of an asbestos factory or even those living with family members who worked with asbestos.
The chemical structure of asbestos is that of fibrous crystals that are naked to the human eye. Asbestos can be classified according to its color, i.e. blue, brown, white and green. In 1985, blue and brown asbestos materials were banned in the UK. White asbestos was outlawed in 1999. In 2011, it has been reported that over half of all UK households contain asbestos. This is because these buildings were most likely built before the 1980’s, before asbestos was first outlawed.
If asbestos in homes and industrial premises is not disturbed and it is left well concealed, it should not pose a major problem. However, if it becomes disturbed, for example, in renovation or when knocking an older building down, it may become a health hazard as the asbestos particles could be free in the air. In these cases it should either be managed by wearing PPE/RPE and following safety guidelines. If it is termed a major hazard, it should only be managed and removed by licenced professionals. Construction companies must ensure their workers understand the risks associated with asbestos should they come in contact with it.
Common places where asbestos can be found (in both industrial and residential buildings) include the lagging in pipes, asbestos containing boards in the ceiling, in older fire blankets, sprayed coatings in ceilings/walls, in gutters and in bath and cistern panels. It should be noted that by removing asbestos containing materials, its fire-retardant properties may also be removed. So, substitute fire protection will need to replace these.
Mesothelioma and asbestosis have been observed in persons who are occupationally exposed to asbestos. Asbestosis is a chronic inflammatory disease that causes scarring to the tissue of the lungs. This is caused by the inhalation and settling of the asbestos fibres in the lungs. Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that develops in the lining of the lungs and lower digestive tract. Pleural thickening of the lungs can also occur. This can cause shortness of breath and discomfort in the chest. All cases of asbestos poisoning can be fatal.