Asbestos is an extremely dangerous substance, found in many buildings throughout England, Scotland and Wales, and responsible for killing over 4000 people every year. Therefore, it’s important to understand the background to it – what it is, why it’s here, and why you need to be asbestos-vigilant.

So, What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos is the name that’s been given to a group of 6 naturally-occurring silicate minerals.

The word ‘asbestos’ comes from ancient Greek, which in its original form was ἄσβεστος, meaning ‘unquenchable’ or ‘inextinguishable’. The reason for this unusual meaning lies in asbestos’ very unique and, from a construction point of view, highly appealing properties.

Asbestos properties include:

  • Resistance to fire, heat, and electrical/chemical damage.
  • Sound absorption.
  • Doesn’t evaporate, or dissolve in water.
  • Doesn’t emit any odours or smells.
  • Doesn’t migrate through soil.
  • And to top it all, it’s affordable.

All of this led many people to the conclusion that asbestos would be great for making things with.

“Over 5,000 different products have been made using asbestos.”

Even in prehistoric times, it was thought of as a natural-wonder with innumerable uses.

Where Is It Used – Industrial and Construction

It’s because of these diverse, and ultimately useful properties that asbestos became popular amongst manufacturers towards the end of the 19th century.

By the mid-20th century asbestos was being used for a variety of products, such as bricks, ceiling & pipe insulation, concrete, drywall, fireplace cement, fire retardant coatings, floorings and roofing.

The asbestos-usage timeline in UK buildings:

  • 1950s and 1960s – when usage peaked, buildings constructed during this period are likely to contain elements of asbestos.
  • 1980s – usage started tapering off, with buildings from the 80s onwards unlikely to contain asbestos products.
  • 1990s – buildings are very unlikely to contain asbestos.

Asbestos found its way into chemical plants, factories, power plants, refineries, shipyards, and even homes and schools.

What Kinds Of Asbestos Are There?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defined 6 different minerals as asbestos. However, there are 3 that have been predominantly used in construction, and are, therefore, the ones you should familiarise yourself with:

    1. White Asbestos

White asbestos has been used more than any other type of asbestos. It’s mainly found in asbestos-cement products, and was commonly used as a filler or reinforcement in products such as adhesives and paints.

    1. Brown Asbestos

This has been used in ceiling tiles and boards, fire resistant insulation wall panels, sprayed asbestos limpet coatings, and pipe/boiler insulation.

  1. Blue Asbestos

Blue asbestos was used as reinforcement in asbestos cement, in insulation mattresses and in sprayed thermal and acoustic insulation.

Blue asbestos is considered to the most detrimental to health, followed by brown asbestos and then white asbestos.

Discovery of Toxicity

It all started with great promise. However, problems started to arise when people breathed in this ‘inextinguishable’ substance:

  • During the early 1900s researchers started to notice large numbers of lung-related problems being diagnosed in asbestos mining towns.
  • The first UK case of asbestosis was diagnosed in 1924.
  • By the 1930s, regulated ventilation was introduced and asbestosis was made an excusable work-related disease.
  • Regulations of Asbestos-related materials began in the 1980s, increasing in number and restriction until an eventual ban in 1999.

If asbestos becomes airborne (normally through the disturbance of an asbestos site), people in the nearby vicinity are at risk of accidentally inhaling the asbestos fibres. Once they’re in the lungs the human body is unable to remove them, which results in, over time, lung scarring and the development of potentially fatal diseases, such as asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Despite what many people believe because of its wide array of environmental-resistant properties, asbestos wasn’t artificially created by man – it occurs naturally in nature. There has been a steep fall from grace for the once ‘miracle fibre’. Slowly, it’s disappearing from the urban landscape following the discovery and its incredibly harmful (and irreversible) effects on the human body.