A Beginner's Guide to Asbestos
Asbestos is a material made from microscopic flexible fibres which are resistant to heat, electricity and corrosion.
Although asbestos was frequently used as a building material between the 1950s and 1980s due to its rigidity and fire resistance, its fibres can be very dangerous when inhaled over a period of time.
There is a chance any properties - be they commercial, residential or specialist buildings such as hospitals - constructed before 2000 can contain asbestos. Disturbed asbestos fibres can lead to illness when they become airborne – often while building or renovation work is being carried out.
Despite asbestos being banned since 1999 in the UK, it is thought that there are still thousands of buildings in the countr with high levels of asbestos still present, including public buildings and private homes.
When carrying out any work which can disrupt fibres, even if they definitely don't contain asbestos, you need to wear PPE to prevent breathing in fibres. Breathing protection, such as masks, as well as eye protection and gloves, are all required.
Speedy offers Asbestos Awareness training, designed for personnel who undertake maintenance, refurbishment or building work. It is fully compliant with regulation 10 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations. We also have a guide on how to get rid of asbestos.
Why is asbestos dangerous?
When materials containing asbestos are disturbed or damaged, it releases fibres into the air. These fibres, when inhaled, can cause serious diseases.
The symptoms of these diseases won't appear for years until diagnosis. Lung diseases and cancer are the most common illnesses post-contact, and asbestosis is another serious issue caused by exposure. Asbestos exposure is thought to cause around 5,000 deaths per year, with 20 tradesmen dying every week due to past exposure.
Symptoms of asbestosis include:
- shortness of breath
- persistent cough
- extreme tiredness (fatigue)
- pain in your chest or shoulder
- in more advanced cases, clubbed (swollen) fingertips
It can take 20 to 30 years before symptoms appear. It is not possible to treat these conditions, but therapy and inhalers can make them easier to live with. Exposure to asbestos is also the leading cause of mesothelioma in the UK and according to the charity Macmillan, around 2,300 people are diagnosed every year. This is a cancer that affects the thin membrane around the chest and abdomen.
Then, at this stage, the disease is often untreatable. This is why it is vital to protect yourself from asbestos at the point of work.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) notes everyone is exposed to low levels of asbestos every day - it is present in the environment all around them. However, builders and tradesmen can face fibre levels hundreds of times greater than they would naturally, which is when it becomes dangerous and they risk suffering from an asbestos-related disease. Therefore, proper asbestos management is essential and safety must be a priority for anyone working in the sector.
How can I tell if asbestos is present in my building?
There are three variations of the fibres asbestos surveyors will be on the lookout for - blue asbestos (crocidolite), brown asbestos (amosite) and white asbestos (chrysotile). All three can cause problems, although blue and brown are more dangerous than white.
There are some places where asbestos is more commonly found. Roofing, insulation and cement products (such as piping and tiles) are three common areas, as are ceilings. Spray paint and textured walls can also contain asbestos. Any homes built pre-1980 likely had asbestos at some point, and this may not have been removed if your home has not been refurbished yet.
An asbestos testing kit will confirm whether samples of the material contain asbestos or not.
What does asbestos look like?
Asbestos looks different depending on the type of asbestos, where it is, and how old it is. Often, it looks like very thin fibres, which can float in the air for days and therefore cause long-term issues if disturbed.
This is a good visual guide to asbestos, and where it can be found. Friable asbestos is easy to crumble and break down, meaning you may stumble upon it without knowing what it is. Non-friable asbestos can't be easily crumbled, but can still become damaged during renovation work or similar.
What do I do if I suspect asbestos is present?
Do not touch the material. Asbestos kills, so stop work immediately. Do not try and clean it up, as this means the fibres will spread and you risk long-term exposure. Read our guide on How To Get Rid of Asbestos.
If you are working on-site in construction, tell a manager immediately, who will need to put up signs preventing access and contact their Health and Safety board. More information can be found on the HSE website.
In the age of DIY renovations, it is now increasingly more likely non-site workers will also come into contact with asbestos. If you have just bought a house, or are planning renovation work, always have an assessment carried out first. If you suspect asbestos is present in your home and haven't had an assessment, contact your local council who will be able to tell you what to do.
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