What is asbestos?

Last updated: 05 Mar 2020

Asbestos is a term for a group of naturally occurring minerals, which all share the same fibrous structure. Asbestos was used extensively as a building material in the 20th century, and was found in a range of other products such as machinery and vehicle brakes. This is because it is resistant to heat, is very durable and is a good thermal insulator.

However, its fibrous structure means that if asbestos is damaged or disturbed, tiny fibres can be released into the air. These fibres are small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and can cause serious, often fatal, damage. All types of asbestos are classified as human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). For this reason, the law requires that asbestos is managed and maintained in a good condition.

It wasn’t until 1999 that all forms of asbestos were banned in the UK, so any building that was constructed or refurbished before this date could contain asbestos.

Those involved in refurbishment, maintenance and building trades, such as electricians, plumbers, joiners, engineers and construction workers, are at most significant risk. The Health and Safety Executive has estimated that 1.3 million tradespeople are at risk of asbestos exposure, and that they could come into contact with asbestos, on average, more than 100 times a year.

What conditions can asbestos cause?

Asbestos exposure can cause a number of diseases, including mesothelioma (a form of cancer), cancers of the larynx, ovary, pharynx and stomach, and asbestosis. Exposure to asbestos causes over 5,000 deaths in the UK a year, making it the biggest cause of workplace death.

Asbestos-related diseases do not develop immediately, but can take between 15 and 60 years to develop. Many of the people dying today were exposed to asbestos many years ago. However, people are still exposed to asbestos due to its prevalence in the built environment.

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