Asbestos is a particularly deadly form of air pollution and the legal limits on air pollution regarding it are strict. Each year, 4,000 people die because they inhaled asbestos pollution at some point during the past. According to the Health and Safety Executive, which oversees legislation on asbestos every week, asbestos claims the lives of:
- Four plumbers
- 20 tradesmen
- Six electricians
- Eight joiners.
Asbestos fibres penetrate the lung and are responsible for:
- Mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs which is always fatal and is almost always caused by exposure to asbestos
- Asbestos-related lung cancer, which is often fatal
- Asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs which is not necessarily fatal but is very debilitating
- Diffuse pleural thickening, which is a thickening of the membrane surrounding the lungs. This causes breathlessness by restricting the expansion of the lungs.
Like other forms of air pollution, asbestos fibres are invisible to the naked eye, so you may not know if you are been exposed to it or not. It can take between 15 to 60 years for symptoms of an asbestos-related disease to develop. Asbestos was widely used as a building material between the 1950s and mid-1980s, because of its strong insulating properties. It was banned in the United Kingdom in 1999, but houses, business premises, hospitals, and other buildings constructed before 2000 may contain asbestos in some form. There is a background level of asbestos in the environment but exposure to this is not likely to cause any health problems. The risk increases with the number of asbestos fibres breathed in. Intact asbestos is unlikely to cause any problems – it is the release of asbestos fibres into the air that is the danger.
Asbestos comes in many forms, some of which are potentially more dangerous (because of their ability to release fibres) than others. If you are a contractor working in premises where there is asbestos pollution, or if you live in a home or work in an office where refurbishment is going on, it's possible you'll get exposed to asbestos. So it is worth knowing what the different forms of asbestos are, and whether they are a potential source of airborne asbestos fibres.
This is an ordinary cement that is mixed with asbestos. It is found in roofs, downpipes, gutters and walls. The asbestos component is tightly packed so there is not much risk of asbestos fibres being given off unless the cement is sawn or drilled.
Used to create a decorative finish on ceilings and walls, these coatings had various trade names (such as Artex). The asbestos is tightly packed but might be released if the coating is sanded down.
Floor tiles, textiles, composites
These materials do not look different from their non-asbestos containing counterparts. Asbestos floor tiles are sometimes hidden under a carpet, and the textiles are sometimes found in old fuse boxes (beware during rewiring work). Old fire blankets are notorious for being made of asbestos textiles. All should be treated with caution.
These are white or grey with a rough surface. They contain up to 85% asbestos and break up very easily, releasing fibres. Sprayed coatings are one of the most dangerous asbestos-containing materials. You must have an HSE licence to work on asbestos sprayed coatings.
Asbestos insulating board
This was commonly used as a fireproofing material and may be found in: partition walls, fireproofing panels in fire doors, lift shaft linings, ceiling tiles, panels below windows. It is hard to tell the difference between these and their non-asbestos containing counterparts. The board readily releases fibres when disturbed and, except for minor tasks, you must have an HSE licence to work on an asbestos insulating board.
Lagging and insulation
This is mostly found in or on heating systems and is a fibrous material that easily breaks up. Therefore this is also a dangerous form of asbestos material so you would need an HSE license to work on it.
If you are concerned that asbestos is in your home or place of work, and you want to clean the air with air filters for asbestos. The key here is to look for quality. We would only recommend units such as the medical-grade air cleaner. Hyper-HEPA filtration reaches the highest filtration efficiency while providing you with a guarantee for the units overall top performance. There is a wealth of information and advice on the HSE website on how to proceed if you have concerns about the presence of asbestos in a property. If in doubt, don't put yourself or others at risk – check it out!