What does asbestos look like and where is it found?

What does asbestos look like and where is it found? Image portrays a person in protective clothing inspecting asbestos

What does asbestos look like and where is it found?

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Asbestos was used in various industries and its use was only totally banned as recently as 1999. Between 1985 and 1999 only white asbestos was allowed to be used as the more hazardous blue and brown asbestos types were banned in 1985. Because the bans came into force relatively recently and asbestos had been used for decades before the ban, it is still present in many buildings; both residential and industrial. Asbestos is however very dangerous and needs to be handled with care. The inhalation of asbestos fibres can, over time cause some very serious damage to the lungs, which is often fatal. But where is asbestos found and what does it look like? We covered Asbestos as a material in a previous blog so in this article we will focus more on how to identify asbestos and where it is typically found.

Quick Abestos Recap

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous material that has excellent fire and heat resistance as well as durability. From the 1800’s until its total ban in 1999, it was used extensively in everything from ceiling tiles to downpipes to car brakes and even paint. The most common type is white asbestos which due to its soft and flexible fibres is the least hazardous but hazardous nonetheless. Blue asbestos is deemed to be the most dangerous due to its small and very hard, needle like fibres and brown asbestos comes in a close second. Only deemed less hazardous as its fibres tend to be longer and coarser making them slightly harder to inhale. When asbestos fibres are inhaled into the lungs they, over a period of time, cause significant scarring which leads to a hardening of the lung tissues and breathing difficulties and in most serious cases death.

Where is Asbestos found?

As we have mentioned, asbestos was widely used in both industrial and residential properties so we will split these out:

Asbestos in Industrial and Commercial properties

  • Asbestos Insulation boards used in
    • Partition walls
    • Fireproofing panels in/on fire doors
    • Lift shaft lining
    • Ceiling tiles
    • Soffits
    • Under window panels
  • Boiler lagging
  • Fire retardant spray coatings on ceilings, beams and columns
  • Asbestos cement water tanks
  • Loose fill insulation
  • Window cills
  • Concrete stair nosing strips
  • Rope seals and gaskets
Asbestos pipe lagging

Asbestos in Residential properties

  • Pipe lagging
  • Textured decorative paint such as Artex®
  • Ceiling tiles
  • Bath panels
  • Panels behind fuse boards
  • Partition walls
  • Window panels
  • Insulation boards in airing cupboards
  • Loose fill Insulation
  • Insulation boards behind fires
  • Toilet cisterns

Asbestos Externally

In both industrial and residential settings asbestos is found externally in places such as:

  • Gutters and downpipes
  • Soffits
  • Exterior window panels
  • Roofing felt
  • Asbestos cement roofs
  • Asbestos cement panels

It is obvious, given the number of products that asbestos is in and the number of years it was used, that there is still a lot of this hazardous material still present in our buildings but what does asbestos look like and how can you identify it?

A close up of pure Asbestos - fluffy white and grey material

What does Asbestos look like?

Unfortunately asbestos is very difficult to identify just by looking at it as it is mostly mixed with other materials. The white, blue and brown descriptions are a bit of a red herring as the colouration can only really be seen by looking at the fibres under a microscope.

In most settings the only application that uses “pure” asbestos is the loose fill insulation and this is a loose fluffy material not too different from candyfloss but with more structure and substance. Typically, this will look blue-grey or whitish in colour. If anyone suspects that they have this either in their loft or in their cavity wall insulation they should not touch it, seal up the hatch to the loft and call a professional immediately. Loose fill insulation is the most dangerous type of asbestos currently in properties as it can release large amounts of fibres into the air very easily.

Asbestos lagging can be hard to spot as it is often covered in a wrap or painted, but when disturbed it looks a white grey in colour and can be quite flaky and brittle. This asbestos is also very dangerous due to its propensity to flake into small fibres.

Asbestos cement boards are hard to distinguish from normal cement boards especially for roofing and building panels. It is typically very hard and a mottled grey colour.

Asbestos spray coatings look white or grey and usually have a rough, grainy surface. Typically, these are used for fire protection on steel and concrete beams and insulation on the underside of roofs.

In a residential setting any textured coating which pre-dates the bans, such as Artex® is likely to contain asbestos and needs to be handled carefully when removing. (Most plasterers will simply board over Artex® and skim the new plasterboard, effectively encasing the Artex®).

If anyone believes that they have asbestos, even if they can’t positively identify it, they should seek the services of a professional company to check and, if needed, remove the asbestos. No-one who is not trained should try to remove the material.

Asbestos Training

At Chris Garland training we run a RoSPA and IATP accredited asbestos awareness course which is designed for anyone who might come into contact with asbestos in their work, such as plumbers, carpenters, builders and electricians. Our asbestos awareness for Architects and Designers e-learning course takes this training to the next level for those who require it. Why not contact us and enrol on our asbestos awareness course or simply talk to us about any health and safety training requirements that you might have.

What does asbestos look like and where is it found?

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