Asbestos deaths. The figures are simply staggering. The World Health Organisation estimates that 300 people worldwide succumb to a preventable disease attributed to a known carcinogen. It is now more important than ever that we actively remove safely, and monitor carefully, any remaining existing asbestos installations.
Asbestos, once used widely throughout building and construction works, is a deadly killer. In the UK alone – where asbestos regulations are strict — the ongoing effects of exposure to asbestos fibres cause 5000 deaths each year, which is more than the figure represented in car crashes. Although building new structures with asbestos materials is strictly prohibited, there are countless structures still existing that contain the fibres.
Asbestos is a durable, fire and chemical resistant, natural fibrous mineral. These innate qualities of the mineral made it an easy choice in building works, where it was used in asbestos floor tiles, asbestos ceiling tiles, cements, wall sheets, auto parts, appliances, paper, and a whole wealth of other structures. The use of asbestos dates back around 4500 years, however large-scale asbestos production really took off in the 1850s.
There are six different types of asbestos: Crysotile aka White asbestos, which is the most common form, Amosite aka Brown asbestos, Crocidolite asbestos, Tremolite, Anthophyllite, and Actinolite.
The tiny fibres in the substance make it easy to inhale when asbestos-laden materials are manufactured or broken down. These fibres stick to the lining of the lungs which can then result in a number of diseases such as various forms of mesothelioma, asbestosis, fibrosis, various cancers (especially lung cancer), and pleural abnormalities. Many of these diseases are can be fatal.
Although the toxic effects of the mineral were noted as early as 2000 years ago, and documenting of the effects was stepping up in the early 1900s, it took until the 1970s for asbestos to be banned for new use. This is a bone of contention for many sufferers of asbestos-related illnesses, as the manufacturers knew of the potentially deadly health effects and failed to warn people.
You may not realise that you have been touched by the carcinogen until 20-50 years after exposure. Throughout the UK, there are still older homes, businesses, and government buildings riddled with asbestos. Whereas asbestos legislation has tightened significantly since the 1970s, the UK’s Health and Safety Executive directs that the substance could have been used in any building works done before 2000.
This presents as a direct threat to anyone who is near buildings that are in disrepair, with the asbestos fibres breaking down, and even more worryingly and apparent, to workers that are actively involved in refurbishing old structures, or tearing down old buildings.
If you are involved in any trade where these situations occur and you have not been trained in asbestos safety learning, then you are putting your life at risk, as well as those around you.
Trades where you may encounter the breakdown of asbestos (e.g. plasterers, roofers, architects, painters, construction workers, plumbers, electricians, etc.) need to be adequately trained in the health and safety requirements regarding the monitoring of “safe” structures, maintenance of existing structures, safe disposal of asbestos, and building works.
It is essential that you are able to identify where asbestos may have been used, and know how to report the hazard to be handled safely in order to protect yourself and your co-workers from harm.