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What is asbestos?

Asbestos is the generic term given to a group of minerals that crystallise to form long fibres. The 2 most common groups are known as the serpentines and the amphiboles which were the most frequently mined. The fibres have an incredible strength which are also chemical, electrical and heat resistant. These distinguishing properties made it the perfect building material back in the 1980's which it was used in such vast amounts around the world.

Why is it a problem?

Asbestos starts to become harmful and hazardous whenever it has been broken down, fibres are released into the atmosphere and inhaled into the lungs. Inhalation of these fibres can lead to serious diseases such as lung cancer, Mesothelioma and Asbestosis. Most occurrences of these diseases are amongst individuals who were exposed extensively in the past in areas such as industries. However, asbestos was installed in many buildings including domestic homes, hospitals and many other constructions meaning many people are still exposed and potentially at risk, more specifically, workers involved in construction and renovation. Due to this problem, the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 brought together 3 past sets of Regulations covering the prohibition of asbestos, the control of asbestos at work and asbestos licensing together with a ‘duty to manage asbestos’ for those responsible for non-domestic premises.

Why was asbestos used so extensively if it is such a hazard?

The properties of the minerals used where just too useful and beneficial not to take advantage. The ability to resist such high temperatures as well as providing protection against fire, corrosion, cold, acids, alkalis, electricity, noise, energy loss, vibration, salt water, frost, dust and vermin was incredible for building materials at any standard. 

Another reason it was used so extensively was because the diseases that are induced by asbestos have a long latent period which is often decades. So when all the building was going on, there was only positive aspects to consider without knowing the real dangers until it was too late. So after so many constructions were completed, 1000's of people where already exposed.

Who is currently at risk of being exposed to asbestos?

When asbestos is disturbed, the asbestos mineral fibres are released, having the potential to be inhaled. Some kinds of asbestos fibres can remain for many years without degrading or being destroyed, thus always posing a risk until inhaled. Asbestos material that would crumble easily if handled, or that has been sawed, scraped, or sanded into a powder, is more likely to create a health hazard. Persons most likely to be currently exposed to asbestos are those working in building and maintenance trades, and to a lesser extent those involved in asbestos removal (where risks potentially exist unless rigorous precautions are taken.)

What diseases are caused by asbestos exposure?

As asbestos fibres accumulate in the lungs, several diseases may occur:

Two different cancers can occur:

  • Mesothelioma is a cancer that develops in the lining of the lungs and is thought to be almost exclusively related to asbestos. The fatality rates are very high with this cancer with an expected life expectancy of 1-2 years after diagnosis. Mesothelioma also has a very long latency period (i.e. the time between initial exposure and the onset of the disease) that is generally between 3-4 decades.
  • Lung Cancer is a malignant tumour of the bronchi - the tubes carrying air to and from the lungs. The tumor grows throughout the surrounding tissue causing obstructions of air passages. This disease, similar to Mesothelioma, has a long latency period of approximately 2 decades.

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