Asbestos is a synthetic, fibrous material of a blue, green, brown or white colour that has for many years been used in buildings and premises for fire retardant purposes. Being a very effective way to stop the spread of fire, asbestos and asbestos-derived materials are still present in thousands of buildings of all nature in the UK alone, although it is no longer used in new buildings and premises due to a number of implications and issues that have been uncovered.
In more recent years, since the turn of the Century, asbestos’ use is banned in the UK as a result of a range of potentially fatal health issues it can cause in both the medium and long term. This has meant that for many properties and premises, the asbestos used has had to be removed to make things completely safe. Furthermore, with so many of the UK’s buildings and properties having been built in the 20th century, the presence of asbestos has been endemic. However, as with building testing such as air and ventilation testing, asbestos management is paramount.
The Control of Asbestos Regulation, in addition to various other laws under UK Building Regulations relating to its use has meant that regulation around the use and management of this potentially dangerous material is hugely regulated. Upon identifying asbestos and its presence in a building it is crucial to manage it properly as a lack of management and care can lead to legal battles and health issues for those coming into contact with it.
Where is Asbestos Found?
Having been used primarily as a way to prevent the spread of fires in buildings, there are a number of common places in which asbestos can be found. However, before checking these areas it is good practice to check when the building was constructed, as any constructed after the year 2000 are highly unlikely to have asbestos. It is also good practice to check whether anyone else has checked for asbestos in the recent past and if so, if any was found and where.
Common places to find asbestos include:
- Wall and ceiling insulation
- Suspended and synthetic ceilings (under the visible panels)
- Around pipes
- On and around doors (particularly those used communally)
- Building cladding
What to do if you find Asbestos
The first thing to remember upon finding asbestos is not to touch it and to try and ‘quarantine’ the room or area in which the material is in. Furthermore, having identified asbestos, it is important not to panic as in many cases the material is either not asbestos-proper or is contained and packaged safely. If in a commercial premises or residential block however, it may be wise to inform the management or relevant Health and Safety representative.
Upon leaving and having isolated the area, make sure others know that there is potential asbestos there and make sure others stay away until such time it has been made completely safe. If the asbestos found is judged to be of potential danger by a specialist (having been informed of its presence in the first instance), it needs to be removed by an accredited removal specialist.
Why is Asbestos So Dangerous?
Being a very fibrous synthetic material means that upon its dispersal and dissipation into the air, asbestos breaks up into millions or even billions of tiny microfibrils that can be easily breathed in and herein the risks and dangers lie. Simply touching an area where asbestos is present does not necessarily present any dangers. However, the disturbance of the material allows it to dissipate into the air and be easily distributed and breathed in over quite a large area.
One of the problems often faced is that asbestos is very easily disturbed. This means that not packaged properly in its place, something otherwise insignificant such as a slammed door or something knocking the wall or ceiling can actually cause the dissipation of asbestos throughout a room.
There are many people who worked in industries where asbestos use and disturbance was common, such as in the mining, building and construction trades over the years. However, until the late 20th Century, its dangers weren’t properly if at all known. There are therefore thousands of people who suffer from asbestos-related diseases and health conditions.
What Health Problems Can Asbestos Cause?
In some cases, having been exposed to asbestos, people see no adverse effects and nothing untoward occurs with regards to their health. However, it is also fairly common for those having had a degree of exposure to asbestos that they experience health problems and difficulties as a direct result of having breathed in the fibrils from the asbestos in question.
Health conditions caused by asbestos generally affect the lungs, respiratory and pulmonary system and often include (but are not limited to):
- Mesothelioma – This is an aggressive lung disease that affects and damages the lining of the lungs, heart or abdomen [the mesothelium] and usually leads to death
- Asbestosis – This is a chronic inflammatory condition that affects the predominantly the lungs. The synthetic fibres of the asbestos irritate and cause damage to the lungs causing inflammation and scarring internally. Asbestosis usually causes shortness of breath and wheezing and can lead to mesothelioma or lung cancer (more information here)
- Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer – This is often as a result of asbestosis that leads on to subsequent cancer. Because the asbestos fibrils are attacking and disturbing the lung’s lining, this continued damage causes increased cell generation (known as hyperplasia) which is often a precursor to cancer and tumours
What to do in Cases of Asbestos Exposure
If a person is sure that they have come into direct contact with asbestos, it is very important they contact their doctor (GP) or go to their nearest hospital to get checked out and assessed. In most cases however, no health conditions will develop. Coming into contact with Asbestos is usually as a result of:
- Accidental disturbances of asbestos in affected premises
- Working in a high-risk industry such as mining, demolition or construction
- Living with someone who works or has worked in a high-risk industry
- Undertaking DIY refurbishments or building work on a property built before the year 2000