What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring, fibrous mineral that has found uses in many products due to its insulating and fire-retardant properties. The Romans called it amiantus, from the Latin, meaning "unsullied", and wove it into fabrics for clothing and items like napkins and table cloths. Stories relate that the latter would be simply thrown into a fire to clean it and would emerge pristine and white once more. It was used by the Greeks before that and although they were aware of its health risks they chose to ignore them.
Asbestos continued to find its way into items right up until the middle ages, when its popularity waned, but experienced a resurgence during the industrial revolution.
As well as its fire-resistance and insulating properties the strength of the fibres led the mineral to be used in a huge variety of construction materials and other products.
There are two forms of asbestos, serpentine and amphibole, both of which are made of impure magnesium silicate. In its natural form the ore is made up of fibrous strands that break down into smaller and smaller fibres as the material is disturbed. It is this property that causes asbestos to hang in the air for longer and to enter the lungs, bypassing their natural defences against dust.
Within the main forms we break down asbestos into three main types. Chrysotile is a serpentine asbestos and amphibole asbestos includes amosite and crocidolite. Chrysotile is the most commonly found asbestos today with amosite often found in insulating materials such as building boards and crocidolite commonly used in cement products.
Latest death rates within the construction industry show a reduction in the number and rate but there are still around 39 fatal injuries per year. Contrast this with an estimated 3,500 road deaths per year.
Deaths from asbestos related diseases are around 4,720 and rising each year.
To combat this the Health & Safety Executive launched their Hidden Killer Campaign in 2008. This seeks to educate people involved in the construction industry and the general public about the dangers of asbestos containing materials and where they are likely to be found.
Where is Asbestos found?
The list of potential asbestos containing materials is vast but includes:
Paints & Coatings
Textured coatings and paint used on walls and ceilings
Loft & Wall Insulation
Loft and wall insulation - often as contamination of products containing vermiculite
Insulation around stoves and heaters, in the form of insulting board, paper or cement sheets
Gaskets & Seals
Gaskets around furnace doors and where pipes are joined
Vehicle clutches, brakes and transmissions
Roof tiles and corrugated cement roof panels
Vinyl floor tiles and bitumen based adhesives on tiles and vinyl sheeting
Lagging around hot water and steam pipes - either as sprayed on cement or fibre blankets or tape
Heat resistant fabrics - on old ironing boards, for example