What are the Main Asbestos Risks? 

What are the main asbestos risks? Asbestos risks are prevalent since asbestos is the single greatest cause of work-related deaths in the United Kingdom. Specifically, exposure to asbestos killed more than 5,000 UK workers in 2020 and 70,000 EU workers in 2019.

Construction workers and other tradespeople are at particular risk of asbestos exposure. In 2023, this prompted the Health and Safety Executive to launch a new asbestos awareness campaign –– Asbestos and You.

But why is asbestos so dangerous? When inhaled, asbestos fibres collect in the lungs. Because the fibres are fine and take a long time to absorb, they can penetrate deep into the lungs. This article will look at the effect on the lungs in more detail and what asbestos-associated diseases we should be aware of.

What are the asbestos risks to the lungs?

Our lungs have a sophisticated system of measures to prevent harm from airborne particles. But asbestos fibres can bypass these defences. Here are the details…

The upper respiratory system uses hairs to filter large particles and mucous membranes are a barrier to tiny particles and organisms. As you go deeper into the respiratory tract, you’ll encounter more mucous membranes. These are responsible for the catarrh and phlegm that are produced as a reaction to infection from bacteria and viruses.

Deep inside the alveoli (small pockets that collect and transfer oxygen from the air to the bloodstream) white blood cells deal with microscopic invaders. These leukocytes engulf foreign bodies and then break them down so they can pass through the body with the rest of its waste.

Asbestos fibres break down into smaller pieces when they’re disturbed. This means they can hang in the air for a long time and aren’t blocked by the upper respiratory tract’s defences. That enables them to pass deeper and lodge within the tissue of the lungs.

Despite breaking down, the fibres can remain large enough so they’re not fully encapsulated by the white blood cells. This has a twofold effect –– preventing the leukocyte from dissolving the fibres and causing the white blood cells to scar the surrounding tissues. The result is damage to the lungs and the possibility of several serious conditions. Some of which can take decades to make themselves known.

Asbestos fibres held in tweezers by an operative wearing blue protective gloves

Can asbestos cause pleural thickening?

There are two thin layers of cells inside your chest (the pleura). The inner layer covers the lungs and the outer layer lines inside the rib cage. Areas of the pleura can thicken and become pleural plaques.

According to Asthma and Lung UK, between 36,000 and 90,000 people develop pleural plaques in the UK every year. Most don’t experience any symptoms and the plaques are considered harmless.

But heavy exposure to asbestos can lead to pleural thickening. Symptoms may include shortness of breath and pain or discomfort in the chest due to squeezing of the lungs. Pleural plaques can’t be removed.

Can asbestos cause lung cancer?

Asbestos fibres are a potent carcinogen because they’re long-lasting and can penetrate deep into the lungs. This means they can cause lung cancer and spread to cause other cancers around the body such as larynx and ovary cancer.

Since cigarette smoke can also increase the chances of lung cancer, smokers who have been exposed to asbestos are at higher risk. Asbestos-related lung cancer looks and behaves just like that which is caused by other factors, like smoking. It’s a malignant tumour that obstructs the air passages of the lungs.

The most common symptoms are wheezing, weight loss, laboured breathing and coughing up blood. Some sufferers also report shortness of breath, hoarseness, anaemia and persistent chest pain.

What is mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining around the lungs. It can also affect the lining around the abdomen and heart.

It’s rare and almost always caused by exposure to asbestos. Slow to show and quick to advance, by diagnosis it’s usually fatal.

Symptoms include breathlessness, coughing, weight loss and chest or shoulder pain. Pleural effusion (a build-up of fluid in the chest) can also develop.

There are six types of asbestos – blue, brown and white asbestos are the most common. Blue (crocidolite) and brown asbestos (amosite) are more potent than white asbestos (chrysotile) but asbestos in all its forms is carcinogenic.

What is asbestosis?

Asbestosis is not a cancer but it’s a progressive, serious disease of the lungs caused by long-term exposure to asbestos.

Inhaled asbestos fibres can cause scarring, which shrinks and hardens the lungs. This makes breathing difficult as fresh oxygen can’t easily reach the bloodstream.

Common symptoms include shortness of breath, a persistent cough, wheezing, fatigue and chest or shoulder pain. There’s no cure for asbestosis. Treatment is dedicated to reducing symptoms to improve quality of life.

What increases asbestos risks?

Three things will increase your chances of asbestos-related diseases and their severity:

  • Exposure to a high concentration of asbestos
  • Exposure to asbestos for long periods of time
  • Exposure to asbestos often

For those working with or around Asbestos Containing Materials (ACMs), strict regulations are in place to reduce all three factors.

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


Doctor holding lung cancer X-ray

How RJS Waste Management helps keep asbestos risks to a minimum

We hope this answers your questions about asbestos risks and asbestos-related diseases. But there are many more ways we can help clear up your asbestos issues…

With offices in Chichester, Oxford and London, we offer asbestos services to homeowners as well as commercial and industrial enterprises throughout the UK.

RJS Waste Management are the experts when it comes to asbestos testing. So, whether you’re buying or maintaining a property or looking to do some renovations, contact us for an asbestos survey.

If asbestos floor tiles, asbestos pipe lagging or other ACMs are found present in your property, we can help with asbestos collection or asbestos removal and asbestos disposal services too. Our asbestos operatives are UKATA-trained and we’re fully insured with a waste carrier licence.

When you call on our safe and efficient asbestos services, you can rest assured that asbestos risks will be left in the past.