What is Asbestos?

What is Asbestos? Picture of concrete containing asbestos with a warning sign

What is Asbestos?

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Asbestos is a word that quite often elicits some very negative emotions in most people, but what is asbestos? It is a material that needs to be treated with respect as the long-term effects of exposure to it are severe. In this detailed guide, we ask what is asbestos, why is it used and what are the concerns around it. We also ask where can it be found and why has it been banned?

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous material that has excellent fire and heat resistance and is also resistant to most chemicals, making is a very versatile material. It has been used by humans for thousands of years. It is believed that it was first discovered in Greece around 4500 years ago and it was spun into fire-resistant textiles such as cloaks and theatre curtains. The name Asbestos comes from the Greeks and it means inextinguishable. First imported into the UK in the 1700s, it wasn’t until the 1800’s that the European asbestos industry really started to grow with Italy becoming the world’s largest producer of asbestos items. Due to its excellent fire and heat resistance and resistance to chemical attack, new uses were invented. These included insulation for boilers and steam pipes and use in fire resistance paint. Fire fighters used to be kitted out in fire-proof clothing using a woven form of the material. By the mid 20th century was being used in building materials, water pipes and even car brake pads and was thought to be the wonder product of the century.

Types of Asbestos

Asbestos is broken down into two sub-types: serpentine and amphiboles. Serpentine fibres are soft, flexible and curved whereas Amphibole fibres are hard, brittle and rod or needle like. There are 6 main types that were used in industry across the world:

  • Chrysotile, commonly known as white asbestos and is classed under the Serpentine group of materials. White asbestos is by far the most common form and was used for things like ceiling tiles, flooring, wall and brake linings. Although there is no safe asbestos, white, because of its soft and flexible structure is the least harmful of the types used.
  • Crocidolite, commonly known as blue asbestos and is classed as under the Amphibole group of fibres. It was commonly used in steam engines, pipe insulation, fire-resistant spray coatings and cement wall-boards. Due to its short, hard and needle like fibres, blue asbestos is considered to be the most harmful form as it is much easier to inhale deeply into the lungs.
  • Amosite, commonly called brown asbestos is also an amphibole fibre often used in insulation board, sheetrock and ceiling tiles. It is deemed to be less hazardous than blue because its fibres are coarser than those found in blue making them slightly harder to inhale deep into the lungs.
  • Anthophyllite is also an Amphibole and was rarely used by itself. It can be found in talc and vermiculite but is mainly a contaminant in white asbestos.
  • Tremolite is also an Amphibole and, like Anthophyllite, is found in talc, vermiculite and is also a contaminant in white asbestos.
  • Actinolite is similar to Tremolite although much more rare.

It is important to note, that, although the three most common types are ranked according to their potential to cause harm, there is no such thing as a safe asbestos and can ALL cause serious lung damage.

What is Asbestos? Fibrous asbestos - blue asbestos fibres

When was Asbestos Banned?

The import of the blue form underwent a voluntary ban in 1970 with the Brown form undergoing a similar voluntary ban in 1980. They were both finally banned legally in 1985 by the Asbestos Prohibition Regulations 1985. It wasn’t until 1992 when the importation of all Amphibole materials was finally banned under the Asbestos Prohibition Regulations 1992. The same regulations also started to restrict the use of Chrysotile (white). Finally, in 1999 the import, supply and use of all asbestos containing materials (ACM’s) was banned, but it still remains in many schools, offices, workplaces and homes today.

Concerns about Asbestos

The issues with asbestos have actually been known since the first century AD. Romans noted that slaves who mined it or worked with it became ill. However they were not able to understand what was causing the illness. It wasn’t until the end of the first world war that it was noticed that those working with the material were dying at an unnaturally young age. In 1927 the term “asbestosis” started to be used after an autopsy on an asbestos factory worker. The autopsy showed serious lung damage which was linked directly to asbestos.

Asbestosis is caused by inhalation of the fibres, which over a number of years cause scarring of the deep lung tissue. The proper medical name for this is diffuse pulmonary fibrosis. The scarring causes the lung tissues to become thick and stiff. This makes it much harder for the lungs to work properly. The effects of inhaling asbestos and the resultant asbestosis can take anywhere from 10 – 40 years to appear. The timescale depends on the amount of asbestos someone has been exposed to. Typical symptoms as asbestosis are:

  • Breathlessness
  • Chest pains
  • Persistent cough
  • Build up of fluid on the lungs
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Tiredness and fatigue

Asbestosis is incurable and mostly fatal as the damage to the lungs cannot be reversed and it can get worse over time, especially if the person who has it is a smoker.

As asbestos is still present in vast quantities in older homes and many workplaces ensuring that people are not exposed to it is vitally important to prevent further deaths in the future.

Asbestos Awareness Course

At Chris Garland training we run a RoSPA and IATP accredited asbestos awareness course which is designed for anyone who might come into contact in their work such as plumbers, carpenters, builders and electricians. 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 is Asbestos?

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