How dangerous is asbestos really?

According to the Health and Safety Executive website, 5000 workers die from directly-related asbestos diseases every year.  This is more people than die in road accidents.  We have safety measures on the roads to keep us safe, so it make sense to have safety measures around asbestos for the same reasons.

The challenge is that it’s easy to envisage carnage from an out-of-control lump of metal travelling at speed, but asbestos deaths are harder to ‘see’.  Illnesses develop over time, attacking the lungs to cause various horrible diseases that affect the patient’s ability to breathe.  It’s not something you would wish on your worst enemy, but it’s insidious over time, which makes it harder for most people to see it as a killer.

It’s more like smoking causing lung cancer – asbestos also causes lung cancer (and if you smoke and have been exposed to asbestos over time, then the chances of you getting it dramatically increase).  Common sense tells us smoking is bad for you – so is asbestos.  However, we don’t choose to breathe around asbestos, it’s often not obvious and that’s why it’s so important that older properties are tested and asbestos is removed where it poses a health risk.

67 countries have banned asbestos. Including the UK.  The USA has not got a total ban, they tried to ban it, but a couple of lawsuits were raised and these cases decided in favour (or should that be ‘favor’?) of asbestos being permitted.

Why did we use asbestos in the first place?

It’s been around since the cavemen; they used the silicate minerals that are in asbestos.  It’s a very effective insulator, especially for electrical equipment as it has a high heat tolerance. 

The problem is that it is made us of fibrous crystals and these are easily dislodged by abrasion – and that doesn’t mean getting a piece of sandpaper on the job, just touching against asbestos is enough to release the tiny fibres that cause diseases such as lung cancer, mesothelioma, asbestosis and thickening of the lining of the lung, reducing its capacity.

Because regular contact with asbestos over a long period develops lung diseases slowly, by the time any of these diseases are diagnosed it’s too late to do anything to cure them.

Are new homes built with asbestos?

In 1992 the government finally wised-up to the health issues and stopped any imports of asbestos, but still allowed what builders had in stock to be used. 

The insurance industry then took a hit as people suffering from asbestos-related diseases made claims about negligence and undue risk on the part of their employers.

Asbestos has not been used in any building erected since 2000 in the UK, so newer buildings, both residential and commercial will not have asbestos in any part of them.

However, many more buildings pre-date 2000 – some by more than 100 years – and asbestos was used in floor tiles, ceiling tiles, insulation, corrugated roofs and other parts of many buildings.  That’s why it’s still essential to know how to test for asbestos and remove it safely.