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What is asbestos and how to deal with it

For many decades there has been a lot of mystery and controversy concerning asbestos and various materials that it can be found in. You may be aware of the dangers that surround this once self-proclaimed wonder material but you may be struggling to answer this question – what is asbestos?

Fibres from asbestos are microscopic and sometimes cannot be seen by the human eye. Although small, these fibres are harmful to the human body.

Asbestos is the term used for six naturally occurring mineral silicates. They are usually known by their colours and have the ability to resist heat, fire and electricity.

Asbestos Colours

The main three asbestos types are commonly referred to as the colours listed below:

These colours are only normally visible when in a raw state. In addition to these, there are three lesser known types of asbestos. These are:

Asbestos fibre types

Not only can asbestos be identified by it’s associated colour, it can also be identified by the type of fibre.

  • Serpentine  – Serpentine asbestos fibres are long and snake like. They are curly, inelastic and are layered silicates.
  • Amphibole  – Unlike serpentine fibres, amphibole asbestos fibres arelong, needle like and chain structured. Amphiboles are elastic but also stiff.

The history of asbestos

Asbestos fibres naturally occur worldwide. It is believed that archaeologists first uncovered asbestos fibres in the stone age and by 4000BC long, hair like asbestos fibres were being used for wicks in candles and lamps. Also, this time period saw the minerals used to make clay pots in Finland. The ancient Egyptians started using asbestos in 2000BC were they started to weave the fibres into cloth to use them as burial shrouds.

It was not until the latter part of the industrial revolution that the uses of asbestos became common in industry. In the 20th century new uses evolved, particularly in the building sector. It was at this time that the properties of asbestos were fully exploited. This was due to the excellent strength, heat, fire and electrical benefits of the minerals.

There are considered to be thousands of different asbestos containing materials that can be found in buildings around the world. The actual content of asbestos in these materials can range from just a trace up to 100%. Materials can contain one type of asbestos or sometimes all of the three main types.

The asbestos boom

Asbestos use in the UK was brought back in the 1700’s, but did not become popular until the industrial revolution of the 1800’s. The industrial revolution represented a huge boom for the asbestos industry. Factories began to open and new uses for the wonder mineral were being devised on a regular basis.

Commercial asbestos mines started to appear in the late 1800’s when entrepreneurs began to realise that the mining of asbestos could potentially make them rich.

The railroad industry was among the first to make use of asbestos containing materials. Because of the rate that the railroad industry was growing at the time, the demand for asbestos grew dramatically. Railroad engineers began to use asbestos to line refrigeration units and boxcars. Asbestos was found to be especially useful as insulation for pipes, boilers and fire boxes used in the locomotive steam trains of this era.

The shipyard industry wasn’t far behind and began to follow suit in the wide use of asbestos. Some typical uses in this industry was insulation for steam pipes, boilers, hot water pipes and incinerators. In fact, asbestos was so widely used aboard ships that the workers on board are among some of the most affected by asbestos related illnesses such as mesothelioma and asbestosis.

Health effects

Inhaling asbestos fibres into the body can lead to asbestos-related illnesses such including mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer and pleural plaques. These diseases can take many years to develop (10-30 years). This means you will not be immediately aware of a change in somebody’s health after inhaling asbestos fibres. Most cases of mesothelioma, asbestosis & lung cancer lead to death. These diseases are caused by small fibres becoming embedded in the lung tissue.

Asbestos is thought to be the single biggest cause of occupational ill health with at least 5000 people expected to die this year from an asbestos-related disease. Deaths will continue to rise until at least 2020 where the numbers are expected to peak at 12,500 deaths per year (34 per day on average).

Mesothelioma

This is a cancer of the cells that make up the lining on the outside of the lungs, inside of the ribs and abdominal organs. By the time the disease is diagnosed it is almost always fatal. Similar to other asbestos-related diseases, mesothelioma has a very long latency period averaging 15-40 years. There is no known limit of exposure to asbestos. Therefore, as the frequency, duration and level of exposure increase so do the risks of developing mesothelioma.

Asbestosis

Asbestosis is long term inflammation and scarring of the lungs due to asbestos exposure. The disease is a type of pulmonary fibrosis, a condition in which the lung tissue becomes scarred over time. It is not a type of cancer, but it has the same cause as mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers.

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is a malignant tumor of the lung’s air passages. The tumor grows through surrounding tissue, invading and obstructing air passages. The time between exposure to asbestos and the occurrence of lung cancer is on average 10-30 years.

Research shows that their is a link between smoking and asbestos exposure. If you smoke, and are exposed to asbestos, then your risk of contracting lung cancer is greatly increased.

What is asbestos?

Hopefully, after reading this article you should have a good idea to the question – what is asbestos?

If you suspect the presence of asbestos in your premises then it may be beneficial to get some advice from a professional. The location and type of the asbestos found could determine the course of action that needs to be taken.

An asbestos survey would be the best way to make this decision.

If the material is likely to be disturbed we may suggest asbestos removal. If the material is less likely to be disturbed we may just recommend that you manage the asbestos containing materials appropriately.

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