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What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a term used to describe six types of heat-resistant fibrous silicate materials. Any product that contains at least one of these six minerals is classified as an ACM (asbestos-containing material). The six minerals include:

  • Crocidolite (known as blue asbestos)
  • Amosite (known as brown asbestos)
  • Chrysotile (known as white asbestos)
  • Tremolite
  • Anthophyllite
  • Actinolite

Crocidolite, amosite and chrysotile are much more common than tremolite, anthophyllite and actinolite.

Asbestos-containing materials are categorised according to their friability. This means the ease with which they shed fibres. The higher the friability, the higher the level of risk.

What was asbestos used for?

ACMS were used widely in the construction industry and the production of consumer items before the health effects and dangers were recognised. Estimates suggest that asbestos was used to create over 3,500 different types of products during the 1960s and 1970s. Asbestos fibres were used in building and construction because they possessed the following properties:

  • Heat resistance
  • High tensile strength
  • Resistance to adverse and extreme weather conditions
  • Resistance to chemical exposure and erosion
  • Soundproofing

Asbestos was banned in the UK in 1999 (there are a very small number of exceptions). By this time, asbestos fibres had been used to create thousands of products and buildings. As such, it is not uncommon to come across buildings that still contain asbestos. To minimise risks and protect homeowners, tenants, property professionals and people who carry out work on properties, there are regulations in place to prevent exposure to asbestos.

According to the RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors), the most common types of asbestos products found in commercial and residential properties include:

  • Insulation
  • Surface coatings
  • Asbestos cement
  • AIB (asbestos insulating board)
  • Thermoplastic floor tiles
  • Decorative features, for example, Artex
  • Roofing felt

Why is asbestos so dangerous?

Many people are aware that asbestos is dangerous, but the exact effects of asbestos exposure are less well-known. Data from the HSE (Health and Safety Executive) suggests that more than 5,000 workers per year die as a result of asbestos. Globally, the World Health Organisation estimates that 107,000 lives are lost each year due to asbestos exposure.

Exposure to asbestos is linked to an elevated risk of these conditions:

●     Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer, which affects the linings of the lungs, known as the pleura, and the lower digestive tract, known as the peritoneum. The vast majority of cases of mesothelioma in the UK are associated with asbestos. More than 2,600 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed every year (source). Symptoms of mesothelioma include chest pain, fatigue, breathing difficulties, persistent coughing, fever, unexplained weight loss and night sweats. If the peritoneum is affected, additional symptoms include swelling and pain in the stomach, nausea and changes in bowel habits. There is no cure for mesothelioma.

●     Asbestos-related lung cancer

Asbestos exposure increases the risk of lung cancer. Asbestos-related lung cancer looks the same as lung cancer caused by smoking, and the symptoms are also similar. Symptoms include a persistent cough, chest pain, shortness of breath and coughing up blood.

●     Asbestosis

Asbestosis is a condition, which causes scarring of the lungs as a result of heavy or prolonged exposure to asbestos. This condition is most common among people who worked in construction between the 1960s and the late 1990s. Symptoms tend to develop gradually and include wheezing and hoarseness, a persistent cough, chest and shoulder pain, fatigue and shortness of breath.

●     Pleural thickening

Pleural thickening occurs when the lining of the lungs, the pleura, becomes swollen. In most cases, pleural thickening is caused by prolonged or heavy exposure to asbestos. Symptoms include chest pain and breathing difficulties.

The World Health Organisation classes asbestos as a Group 1 carcinogen, which means that the material is known to increase the risk of cancer in humans.

How common is asbestos?

A 2019 report revealed that around six million tons of asbestos remain in the UK. There are approximately 1.5 million buildings that contain asbestos, including hospitals, schools and universities (source).

Who is at risk?

Asbestos was banned in the UK in 1999. However, it was used widely for decades before the ban was introduced and people became aware of the potential health risks. Most people who develop illnesses and symptoms of conditions that are linked to asbestos worked in building trades between the 1960s and the year 2000. Anyone who works in an environment or setting where asbestos is present may be at risk, but statistics suggest that mesothelioma, asbestos-related lung cancer and asbestosis are most common among people who had or have the following occupations:

  • Builders
  • Plumbers
  • Demolition workers
  • Heating and ventilation engineers
  • Carpenters
  • Electricians
  • Joiners
  • Shopfitters

People who work in buildings that contain asbestos, for example, teachers and nurses who work in hospitals or schools where asbestos is present, may also be at greater risk than the general public.

Asbestos rules and regulations

All organisations in the UK are legally required to follow rules and regulations related to the use of asbestos and to be proactive in preventing exposure to asbestos to protect employees, clients and the wider general public. Key regulations are outlined by the Health and Safety Executive and govern workplaces and the role of employers. The most crucial points include:

  • Prevention or reduction of exposure to asbestos

The best way to reduce the risk of asbestos-related illnesses is to prevent exposure. In some cases, this may not be possible, for example, when trained employees are removing asbestos or they are undertaking work that disrupts or disturbs fibrous materials. If it is not possible to prevent exposure to asbestos, the primary aim is to minimise contact.

  • Provision of protective clothing and equipment

Anyone who is required to undertake work that involves exposure to asbestos should be provided with appropriate protective clothing and equipment to reduce exposure. Clothing should also be cleaned and stored in line with HSE guidelines.

  • Providing staff training

Asbestos is dangerous, and it requires careful management. Anyone who may be exposed to asbestos as a result of their occupation should have the relevant training and instruction to be able to complete the task and protect themselves to the best of their ability. The level of training required depends on the nature of the job and the risks involved.

  • Obtaining the relevant licence

A specialist licence is required to work with high-risk materials, including asbestos. People who are at high risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses should have a licence to fulfil hazardous work. This usually relates to professionals trained in asbestos removal.

  • Outlining clear plans

If employees are carrying out work that carries a risk of asbestos exposure, employers are obliged to outline clear plans, which provide details about the site or location, the nature of the work, the hazards detected by risk assessments and the measures taken to lower risks and protect the workforce.

Managing asbestos

Duty holders, people who are responsible for the maintenance of non-residential properties in the UK, are required to take steps to manage asbestos. Introduced in 2002, the guidelines outline 7 key steps:

 

  1. Determine whether asbestos is present
  2. Assess the condition and scale of asbestos-containing materials
  3. Arrange for an asbestos survey
  4. Draw up a written record or asbestos register
  5. Create and implement a plan based on the findings of the survey
  6. Update your records continuously
  7. Share the information with surveyors, contractors, maintenance workers and anyone else who may be at risk by working on the property

There are two main options for dealing with asbestos: leave and manage or remove harmful materials.

  1. Leave and manage: It is a common assumption that asbestos poses no risk if it is left alone. If ACMs are not disturbed, the risks may be significantly lower, but if you adopt the leave and manage strategy, it is essential to ensure that materials are inspected regularly. It is also crucial to alert others to the presence of asbestos. If you own a property, for example, and you want to sell or rent a room out, tenants or buyers may be put off because they don’t want to take on the hassle of monitoring ACMs.
  2. Remove asbestos: The second option, to remove asbestos, can be done as an ongoing process or as a one-off task that is undertaken before building or renovation work, for example. Removing asbestos can save time and effort in the long run. Once asbestos is no longer present, there is no need to carry out checks. There is no legal requirement to remove asbestos but it may be the best option for landlords or homeowners who don’t want to take responsibility for asbestos management in the long term.

Conclusion

Asbestos is a term used to describe a group of six fibrous silicate minerals, which can increase the risk of serious health conditions. Asbestos was used widely before the effects were fully understood, particularly in the building and construction trades. Exposure to asbestos elevates the risk of mesothelioma, asbestos-related lung cancer and asbestosis and it accounts for around 5,500 deaths per year in the UK. In 1999, the use of asbestos was banned and there are now stringent regulations in place to reduce exposure and prevent illnesses associated with asbestos.