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Asbestos is a general term for a group of minerals, which are made up of microscopic fibres. In the past, it was widely used in construction, as well as a number of other domestic and commercial purposes.

Nowadays asbestos can prove to be one of the most dangerous things for a person to encounter, particularly for those in the construction industries. Perhaps one of the most worrying aspects is that it can take many years for people who worked in these sectors to experience asbestos-related illness when they are older.

Many people today think that they are free from the risks associated with asbestos, as it has been banned for many years. However, the NHS advise that asbestos still remains in many buildings even today, with an estimated half a million buildings still thought to contain asbestos. This means it can still pose a risk to present day workers.

Eliminating asbestos

Asbestos is found in three main forms: amosite, crocidolite and chrysotile. These are usually known as brown, blue and white asbestos. Brown and blue asbestos are the more dangerous types, and have been banned in the UK since 1985. White asbestos was only banned in 1999.

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 came into force in April 2012, as a response to concerns by the European Commission that the UK had not fully implemented the EU Directive regarding exposure to asbestos. This update means that even some types of non-licensed asbestos work now have additional requirements, such as medical surveillance, record keeping and notification of work.

Who is at risk?

According to the Health and Safety Executive, as many as 20 tradespeople a week could be dying from asbestos damage to their lungs. The people who are most at risk from asbestos-related conditions are often workers who have been involved in refurbishment, maintenance and other similar trades.

Some job roles within these at-risk sectors include:

Where do you find asbestos?

Asbestos is found in both industrial and residential buildings which were built or refurbed before the year 2000. Asbestos can be found in many common materials in the building trade, including asbestos insulating board, lagging, asbestos cement products and sprayed coatings.

In an industrial setting, asbestos can be found in areas including AIB (Asbestos Insulating Board) partition walls, AIB ceiling tiles, vinyl flooring tiles, loose fill insulation, asbestos cement water tanks and even in certain textiles, such as fire blankets. Asbestos can also be found outdoors, such as in soffits and asbestos cement roofs or panels.

In residential homes asbestos can still be an issue. It can be present in pipe lagging, toilet seats and cisterns and in textured decorative coatings like artex. AIB can also be found around boilers, in partition walls, behind fuse boxes, in ceiling tiles and in bath panels.

Asbestos fact sheet

Want to know more about asbestos? Here are some asbestos facts:

What can asbestos cause?

Asbestosis

According to the NHS, asbestosis is a long term chronic lung disease which is caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos. Breathing in asbestos fibres can lead to scarring of the lungs on some people, causing symptoms like wheezing, fatigue, shortness of breath and a persistent cough.

Asbestosis can get worse over time, and people with asbestosis do unfortunately have an increased risk of developing other related conditions, such as the ones mentioned below. More often than not, these related illnesses are more likely to cause death than the asbestosis itself.

Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the cells that make up the membrane covering the outer surface of most of our organs, known as the mesothelial cells. Symptoms include chest or lower back pain, a high temperature, a persistent cough and shortness of breath.

Mesothelioma is shown to be five times more likely in men than in women, with over 2,500 people diagnosed in the UK each year. It is almost always caused by asbestos exposure, although it often develops many years after the exposure occurred – up to 60 years after.

Unfortunately the outlook for the condition is not good, as it is usually diagnosed at an advanced stage. Chemotherapy is the main form of treatment, although these treatments are often based on controlling the symptoms for as long as possible.

Find out more about the stages of mesothelioma.

Pleural thickening

Pleural thickening is a lung disease where the pleura, the thin membrane covering the lung, becomes scarred. As scar tissue builds up it can close off the space between the lungs and the pleura, with this causing chest pain and a loss in breathing function.

This condition is one of the most commonly diagnosed asbestos exposure-related illnesses, as the asbestos fibres can become lodged in the pleura when they’re breathed in. This causes inflammation, and triggers the build up of this worrying scar tissue.

Asbestos-related lung cancer

In the UK, over 41,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer every year. It is one of the most serious types of cancer, and unfortunately one of the most common. In the early stages there are often no symptoms, but this can develop into coughing up blood, persistent coughing or breathlessness or aches and pains when breathing.

It has been found that people who have been exposed to certain substances can develop a higher likelihood of contracting lung cancer, with asbestos being one of the substances on this list.

Working with asbestos

It is illegal to import, supply and use all forms of asbestos in the UK. However, there are still many buildings which contain this harmful material, so it’s important to understand how to stay safe.

It’s vital to evaluate and identify whether it’s likely that asbestos will be present before you begin working in a new location. In non-domestic premises the people responsible for maintenance should provide you with all information about the location and condition of any asbestos in the building as part of their duty to manage the asbestos in that building. If this information is not provided and you suspect that asbestos may be present then you should order the area to be surveyed, and for the material you will be working on to be tested. Or, assume that asbestos is present and automatically prepare for the highest risk situation.

You should understand and evaluate when the work needs to be carried out by a licensed contractor. This includes most asbestos removal work, as well as working with sprayed asbestos coatings and lagging and most insulation and AIB situations. Use this information from the Health and Safety Executive to help find a licensed contractor, or to become licensed yourself.

Even if the work doesn’t need to be carried out by a licensed contractor, you do still need to make sure that everyone who is working in the vicinity of the asbestos, or who is likely to disturb it during their day-to-day role, is fully trained. If you’re an employer then you need to make sure that your staff protect themselves and those around them. This is where SAMS Ltd can help.

Asbestos Awareness courses from SAMS Ltd

Here at SAMS we can provide you and your employees with the opportunity to take the UKATA Asbestos Awareness course through both our excellent e-Learning programmes and traditional classroom-based courses. The course can help you to understand the dangers of asbestos when you unknowingly come into contact with these airborne asbestos fibres, as well as learning how to minimise the risk of exposure during our classroom sessions.