How Dangerous Is Asbestos?

Published: 05th December 2005
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How Dangerous Is Asbestos?

Just the mention of the word "Asbestos" is enough to strike fear into most people, such is the scale of the scare-mongering by international governments and insurance companies.

Whilst there is every reason to treat asbestos with care, the reality is that most asbestos containing materials that you're likely to find in buildings, is probably going to be pretty harmless, as long as it's not damaged.

Asbestos was used in the construction and shipping industries until the 1990's when it was banned by most western governments.

However, being a naturally occurring mineral, it is still mined today in Canada and South Africa and asbestos products are still widely available in many Asian countries

Asbestos containing materials can still be found in buildings in the USA, Canada, the UK and Europe, but unless disturbed, they are unlikely to present a health risk.

Blue asbestos, known as Crocilodite, is the most dangerous. You're likely to find this in boiler rooms, trains, on older ships and in older swimming pools. It was mainly sprayed onto surfaces for fire and/or condensation insulation.

Because it is a sprayed product, it is quite friable, meaning that it is easy to break and disperse. The fibres released are extremely dangerous and it is this type of asbestos exposure that is likely to lead to pleural plaques in the lungs, which leads to the onset of Mesothelioma, or asbestos cancer.

Experts disagree on how much exposure to blue asbestos is needed in order to create a serious health risk, as not everyone who has had extensive and significant exposure to the material develops health problems.

Generally speaking though, if you come across asbestos in a boiler room or cellar and find that there is asbestos debris present, or that the asbestos is exposed, the room should be sealed off and the asbestos material should be professionally removed.

Brown asbestos, known as Amosite is usually present in boards designed to protect against fire, for example on party walls, in roof spaces etc.

These boards are usually safe and will often be painted (known as encapsulation) to prevent any fibre release.

If drilled or broken however, they can release fibres and should therefore be removed wherever practical to so.

If it not practical to remove, the boards should be labelled stating that they should not be disturbed or worked upon, except by properly qualified or licensed contractors.

White asbestos or Chrysotile is less dangerous than either brown or blue asbestos and recognisable because it is usually present in cement or resin based products.

Again, health experts suggest that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure and whilst I am not one to disagree with the experts on this matter, I do question the hype and scaremongering.

It is well known that for many years, people have been dying from exposure to asbestos. That is not disputed. Asbestos can be dangerous.

Most of the claims however, come from people who worked closely with the raw product. Lagging specialists used to openly spray blue asbestos in confined spaces, using sub-standard masks.

My own father worked for a UK train maker in the 1960's as a joiner, making train and underground carriages. His job was to prepare the carriages for the final fixing of the external metal sheets, but before doing so, the asbestos sprayers would first spray the entire surface that would provide a layer of sound and heat insulation.

According to my father, he would then enter the production track where he could see the air thick with asbestos fibres and dust against the dim light bulbs that lit the area. He says he was often knee deep in asbestos debris.

Maybe he was one of the lucky ones. CT scans on his lungs have detected a few pleural plaques. At the moment, they cause no real health problems for him and he is in his mid 70's now. His arthritic knees are more of a problem, but he did manage to get a compensation payment for the presence of the pleural plaques.

So why call this article "How Dangerous Is Asbestos"?

In my work as an asbestos surveyor in the UK, my job is to find asbestos in commercial buildings and to prepare recommendations on behalf of landlords or tenants as to how best deal with the asbestos.

Only in a few serious cases have I ever suggested that asbestos be removed because of an immediate risk to health.

Managed correctly, in accordance with government regulations, asbestos containing materials should be safe enough, providing they are not disturbed.

But what about comparing the risk of asbestos with say the risk of passive smoking?

Did you know that passive smoking is a staggering 60 times more likely to create the onset of a serious lung disease than exposure to asbestos?

You wonder why governments should therefore introduce legislation controlling the exposure to asbestos by employees and visitors to buildings that contain it. Could it be that there is no tax on asbestos, yet the cigarette industry and its customers pay billions of Pounds or Dollars in tax to governments every year?

Or am I just being sceptical? It makes you wonder though doesn't it?

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