Asbestos is a dangerous material used in various trades throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Despite the restrictions and banning of its use in the late 20th century, many buildings today still contain it.
As a result, those working within the trades industry are at high risk of coming into contact with the material.
With the consequences being severe and sometimes fatal diseases if fibres are released and inhaled, workers must be aware of the risks and preventative measures to keep themselves safe and reduce the risk of related health issues.
What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos is the commercial term used for six naturally occurring minerals:
Not immediately identifiable and often mixed with other materials, education is vital to ensure safety around the dangerous material.
Asbestos’s first recorded use was in 2500 BC, and humans have since used it for thousands of years. However, using the material didn’t become popular in the UK until the industrial revolution in the 1800s.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century that researchers noticed a common link between lung problems and asbestos exposure. In addition, researchers noted that those working with the material died unnaturally young. While the UK passed laws in 1931 to increase ventilation, asbestos usage was highest between 1940 and 1947. However, research continued, and many countries began phasing out the use of the material.
When Was Asbestos Banned?
The UK banned the import and use of blue (crocidolite) and brown (amosite) asbestos in 1985. By 1992, the UK had also prohibited using white (chrysotile) asbestos. However, the substance is still present in several buildings, so the risk of contracting an asbestos-related illness remains.
Over 70 countries, including the UK, have banned the use of all types of Asbestos. (Source: Asbestos Safety).
Where Can You Find Asbestos?
You can find asbestos in industrial and residential properties, usually built or refurbished before 2000 and traditionally used as fire, sound, and acid-resistant material. For example, you’ll typically find it in:
- Ceiling tiles
- Floor tiles
- Pipe cement
- Insulation for boilers, pipes, and sheeting.
- Interior wall paint
- Textured decorative coating, e.g. Artex
- Wood stoves and fireplaces
- Garden sheds
- Carpet underlay
- Toilet seat and cistern
- Loose-fill insulation
It’s not always obvious what is and isn’t asbestos. However, the HSE has put together a photo gallery of some of the familiar places you’ll find it.
How Dangerous Is Asbestos?
Simply put, there is no safe level of asbestos exposure, and the illness linked to asbestos can be fatal, making it essential you avoid contact with the material unless adequately trained and protected.
Despite being banned in over 70 countries, asbestos is still present in many buildings and properties and, if disturbed, can pose a risk.
- Five thousand workers die each year from asbestos-related illnesses.
- 20 tradespeople die each week from past exposure.
The following factors can increase your risk of developing an asbestos-related illness or disease.
- Quantity of asbestos fibres you’re exposed to
- Amount of time you’re exposed
- Working in a high-risk environment
- Being a smoker
- Living with someone who works around asbestos
What Illnesses Can It Cause?
Asbestos is a dangerous material as it’s easily inhaled or ingested, which can lead to it being lodged in the lining of the lungs or abdomen. Tumours can then form in these places, and unfortunately, mesothelioma patients are usually only given a 12-21 month life expectancy.
Illnesses linked to asbestos include:
- Mesothelioma – A type of cancer commonly developing in the layers of tissue covering each lung but can develop in many internal organs. Mesothelioma is almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure, and it is usually fatal when found.
- Asbestos-related lung cancer – A type of cancer caused by fibres lodged in the lung tissue. The fibres cause irritation and scarring that can develop into tumours over time.
- Asbestosis – A long-term lung condition caused by prolonged exposure, can be managed with careful medical treatment. Symptoms can take 20-30 years to develop, including shortness of breath and a persistent cough.
- Pleural Thickening – A lung disease where scarring thickens the lining of the lungs.
Who Is Most At Risk?
A recent report concluded that approximately 1.3 million tradespeople risk experiencing the dangerous side effects of asbestos. On average, 20 tradespeople die each week due to exposure to the mineral. Occupational Health and Safety uncovered that one of four construction workers claimed to have been exposed to asbestos. Two-thirds of those were unaware of the cancer-causing risk of the material.
Electricians, plumbers and gas fitters
Electricians, plumbers and gas fitters are at high risk for asbestos-related illnesses as it is common in gas and heating appliances in properties. In addition, those in these trades could likely encounter asbestos on electrical, oil, solid fuel or gas installations.
Laggers should be particularly cautious as they once applied large asbestos sheets to pipes and boilers. Unfortunately, the health effects and implications don’t always show themselves immediately.
Those involved in renovating, repairing, or demolishing older buildings are highly likely to come into contact with asbestos. In addition, many buildings built before 1977 may contain the material to some level.
Mechanics are at high risk of encountering asbestos, especially when undertaking clutch and brake replacements. Estimates reveal that in heating engineers born in the 1940s who have worked in the industry for at least ten years, 1 in 50 is at risk of related diseases.
The use of asbestos continued until the 1970s, often used to insulate boilers and pipes in domestic and commercial properties.
The risk of mesothelioma is high for those who worked in the shipbuilding industry before the 1980s. This is because ships were regularly built using asbestos insulation and other material products; when repairing or maintaining the ships, fibres may have become airborne.
Others at risk include:
- Demolition crews
- HVAC engineers
- Maintenance workers
- Roofing contractors
Several things can increase your risk of asbestos exposure to be aware of:
- Working in a building built before 2000.
- Not completing a risk assessment.
- Not completing appropriate related training.
- Not following proper precautions.
What To Do If You Find Asbestos
When working in a building, mainly those built before 2000, it’s essential to look for any record of asbestos materials.
If the asbestos material is in good condition and out of reach or being touched or damaged, the HSE recommends leaving it in situ. However, if this is the case, regular checks are required to ensure the condition of the material has not deteriorated, and anyone who could come into contact with the area should be informed it’s there.
There are a few options if the asbestos is in bad condition or situated where it could be easily damaged. First, there is removal which should only be done with adequate PPE and training.
Otherwise, you can cover or paint it to reduce the risk of damage.
Asbestos, when undisturbed, poses a low risk, it’s when disturbed and the fibres are released into the air, it becomes a more serious situation.
If you disturb asbestos, you must deal with it quickly.
- Stop what you are doing and leave the area/If you are contaminated, stay where you are, get help and put on respiratory protective equipment (RPE).
- Wipe yourself with a damp cloth and dispose of as asbestos waste.
- Remove and dispose of the clothing worn as asbestos waste.
- Shower and wash your hair.
- Seal the area off, and don’t allow others to enter.
- Do not attempt to enter the area again.
- Contact asbestos abatement professionals immediately.
For further information, visit Health and Safety Executive.