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About Asbestos

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring, fibrous mineral that has found uses in many products due to its insulating and fire-retardant properties. The Romans called it amiantus, from the Latin, meaning “unsullied”, and wove it into fabrics for clothing and items like napkins and table cloths. Stories relate that the latter would be simply thrown into a fire to clean it and would emerge pristine and white once more. It was used by the Greeks before that and although they were aware of its health risks they chose to ignore them.

Asbestos continued to find its way into items right up until the middle ages, when its popularity waned, but experienced a resurgence during the industrial revolution.

As well as its fire-resistance and insulating properties the strength of the fibres led the mineral to be used in a huge variety of construction materials and other products.

There are two forms of asbestos, serpentine and amphibole, both of which are made of impure magnesium silicate. In its natural form the ore is made up of fibrous strands that break down into smaller and smaller fibres as the material is disturbed. It is this property that causes asbestos to hang in the air for longer and to enter the lungs, bypassing their natural defences against dust.

Within the main forms we break down asbestos into three main types. Chrysotile is a serpentine asbestos and amphibole asbestos includes amosite and crocidolite. Chrysotile is the most commonly found asbestos today with amosite often found in insulating materials such as building boards and crocidolite commonly used in cement products.

Latest death rates within the construction industry show a broadly flat rate but there are still around 38 fatal injuries per year. Contrast this with an estimated 3,500 road deaths per year.

Asbestos related diseases remain the biggest cause of death in the construction industry. Mesothelioma, alone, was responsible for 2,595 deaths in 2016 and this figure is rising as more people who were exposed prior to the 1980s present symptoms.

To combat this the Health & Safety Executive launched their Hidden Killer Campaign in 2008. This seeks to educate people involved in the construction industry and the general public about the dangers of asbestos containing materials and where they are likely to be found.

Where is asbestos found?

The list of potential asbestos containing materials is vast but includes:

Textured Coating to Ceiling

Paint & Coatings

Textured coatings and paint used on walls and ceilings.

Insulating Board

Sheet boarding used as firebreaks, heater linings, soffits and ceiling & wall linings

Loft & Wall Insulation

Loft and wall insulation - often as contamination of products containing vermiculite

Appliance Insulation

Insulation around stoves and heaters, in the form of insulting board, paper or cement sheets

Gaskets & Seals

Gaskets around furnace doors and where pipes are joined

Automotive Components

Vehicle clutches, brakes and transmissions. Also commonly found in lift machinery


Roof tiles and corrugated cement roof panels


Vinyl floor tiles and bitumen based adhesives on tiles and vinyl sheeting


Lagging around hot water and steam pipes - either as sprayed on cement or fibre blankets or tape


Heat resistant fabrics - on old ironing boards, for example

What are the Risks Associated with Asbestos?

Asbestos is the single greatest cause of work related deaths in the United Kingdom

Human lungs have a sophisticated system of measures to prevent harm from airborne particles but the unique properties of asbestos can bypass these defences.

The upper respiratory systems uses hairs to filter large particles and mucous membranes serve as a barrier to smaller, microscopic particles and organisms. As you go deeper into the respiratory tract you encounter yet more mucous membranes, these being responsible for the catarrh and phlegm that is produced as a reaction to infection from bacteria and viruses.

Deep inside the alveoli (the small pockets where oxygen is exchanged from the air into the blood stream) microscopic invaders are dealt with by the white blood cells. These leukocytes work by engulfing foreign bodies and then breaking them down so that they can be passed through the body and expelled with the rest of its waste.

Because asbestos fibres break down into smaller pieces as they are disturbed they can hang in the air for a long time and are not blocked by the upper respiratory tract’s defences. That enables them to pass deeper and to lodge within the tissue of the lungs. Despite this the fibres can remain large enough that they cannot be fully encapsulated by the white blood cells. That has a twofold effect of preventing the leukocyte from dissolving the fibre and subsequently causing the white blood cell to actually damage the surrounding tissues. The result is damage to the lungs and a number of very serious conditions, some of which can take decades to be apparent.

The experience and severity of asbestos related disorders is increased by being exposed to higher concentrations, being exposed for longer periods of time and being exposed more often. Strict regulations exist to reduce all three factors for those that are likely to work with or around asbestos containing materials.

Inhaling the more durable, longer fibres, such as tremolite and other amphiboles, can contribute to the severity of asbestos related disorders.

Main Diseases Associated with Asbestos Exposure


Asbestosis is not a cancer but is a progressive, serious disease of the lungs with long term effects. Lung tissues are irritated and inflamed by inhaled asbestos fibres causing scarring. This scarring makes breathing difficult and inhibits the exchange of gasses, oxygen and carbon dioxide. Symptoms can typically take ten to twenty years to show and vary from very minor to disabling and possibly fatal.


Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining around the lungs -the pleura – and the lining around the lower digestive tract – the peritoneum. It is very rare and almost always cause by exposure to asbestos. By the time it is diagnosed it is frequently fatal.

Pleural Thickening

Heavy exposure to asbestos can lead to abnormalities and thickening of the pleural membrane that lines the cavity around the lungs.

Symptoms in extreme cases can include shortness of breath and pain or discomfort in the chest due to squeezing of the lungs.

Lung Cancer

Asbestos related lung cancer looks and behaves just like that which is caused by other factors such as smoking. It is a malignant tumour that obstructs the air passages of the lungs.

Symptoms are, most commonly, couching and wheezing, weight loss, laboured breathing and coughing up blood. Sufferers also report shortness of breath, hoarseness, anaemia and persistent pain in the chest.

Other Risks

There is some suggestion that exposure to asbestos may be responsible for other conditions, such as non-respiratory cancers but the evidence is inconclusive at this time.

For more information please contact us on 01243 213273020 7859 4520 or 01865 598069 or request a quote.