What is asbestos?
It is a naturally occurring fibre that is mined like coal, having been formed naturally millions of years ago.
Asbestos is generally mixed with other materials, for example in building boards or asbestos cement sheets, in fire-proof fabrics such as fire blankets, or in Artex, plastic and similar materials as a bulking material.
How much was used and why?
It has been imported into Britain since the late 1880’s, at its peak in 1972 195,000 tonnes were imported into Britain. It was mainly used in building products and since 1999 its use has been prohibited in Britain.
It was used because of its unique properties, being unaffected by fire, chemicals and water. It does not rot or conduct heat and was cheap to buy.
What are the health risks?
The risks from asbestos have a number of factors, but there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos – and the more you breathe in the more you are likely to be affected. It is however accepted that smokers are more likely to be affected than non-smokers.
The main risks are Mesothelioma (a lung cancer that kills 1200 people yearly), Asbestosis (a progressive lung condition that kills 300 people yearly), asbestos associated lung cancer in smokers also kills 2500 people yearly.
The Pleural Mesothelioma Center (external Link) website has up-to-date information about mesothelioma and the treatment available, helping you understand all about pleural mesothelioma.
As the risks took some years to be recognised and the symptoms take many years to develop the number of deaths will continue to rise to 10,000 by 2020 then gradually fall off in line with asbestos use being reduced and then banned. At present the highest risk group are maintenance workers due to the presence of asbestos in many buildings.
When is it dangerous?
The hazard is from microscopic asbestos fibres entering your lungs, therefore any damage caused to products containing asbestos that releases fibres into the air is dangerous. This could be accidental damage, sanding, drilling or even being attacked by rodents.
In addition asbestos will degrade in time, so any exposed surfaces in poor conditions could release fibres.
If asbestos containing materials are in good condition and sealed they do not pose any hazard.
How can you tell if a material contains asbestos?
You can only be certain by having a sample taken and tested. However there is considerable expertise and advice now available to help you identify where it is likely to be.
An excellent source being the Health and Safety Executive website www.hse.gov.uk (external link).
The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 came into effect in April 2012 and supersede previous legislation.
This has increased the amount of work that requires licensed contractors to be carried out, as well as requiring some works to be notified to the HSE in advance.
The main requirement of the Regulations are: –
- A Landlord or anyone responsible for the maintenance of a non-domestic property (this includes individuals who rent out a house or flat for) has a ‘Duty to manage’; any asbestos in the property to prevent exposure to asbestos fibres.
- Anyone working on a property containing asbestos must know what and where it is, assess, control and manage the risks
- Anyone who may be exposed to asbestos fibres at work must receive training appropriate to their risk
The Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) under the Housing Act 2004, also considers Asbestos hazards. You can find more information on the Housing Health and Safety Hazard Rating System section.