Asbestos is still a tough nut to crack when it comes to people, both in and out of the construction industry understanding the dangers of asbestos. Because of this, we thought that we should give a general explanation of what asbestos is, an outline of the history of its use and why the material is so dangerous.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos refers to six naturally occurring fibrous minerals.

● Asbestos fibres are soft and flexible yet resistant to electricity, heat and chemical corrosion. While these fibres can be mixed into various substances such as cloth, cement, paper etc., asbestos is also an effective insulator on its own.
● It was common to refer to the different types of asbestos as “White asbestos”, “Blue Asbestos” and “Brown asbestos” in business terms.
● Brown and blue asbestos are the more dangerous types, and have been banned in the UK since 1985, while white asbestos was only banned in 1999.

These properties make asbestos highly toxic, but also made it very profitable for businesses. Due to the toxic nature of asbestos, it has now been banned in over 60 countries with others heavily restricting its use. However, the global production of asbestos continues at 2 million tons per year, due to the demand in developing nations where asbestos insulation and cement are still widely used.

History of asbestos use

● Ancient Roman aristocrats used asbestos tablecloths and napkins to dine with, which they threw into a fire to clean.
● The bodies of medieval kings and generals were cremated in asbestos shrouds.
● Ancient Egyptians wrapped embalmed Pharaohs in everlasting asbestos cloth.
● Roman historian Pliny the Elder documented the lung diseases prevalent in slaves who mined and wove asbestos fibres.
● Pliny’s writings even described the slaves’ primitive attempts at inventing respirators.

How was asbestos used in construction?

Asbestos was used in many different areas of the construction industry until it was banned in 1999. This is because it was cheap and easy to source from mines, so companies promoted as many uses for it as they could find.

● Asbestos became an ever-present ingredient in fire-resistant construction materials including roof sealants, adhesives for floor and ceiling tiles and cement sheets.
● In the USA, the mineral was used to fireproof skyscraper girders.
● Insulation using asbestos was extremely popular for most of the 20th century, used in walls and pipes everywhere from family homes to power plants.

What are the dangers of exposure to asbestos?

Exposure to asbestos is dangerous because inhalation can happen through both first-hand and second-hand exposure. Many serious illnesses such as mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer are caused by exposure to the substance, and can take years to develop and show symptoms.


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

Over 2,500 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma in the UK each year, with statistics showing it to be five times more likely to develop in men than women. The cause is almost always exposure to asbestos, with the disease often developing up to 60 years after exposure has occurred.

The outlook for people with this condition is not good, as it is usually diagnosed at an advanced stage. Treatments are often based on controlling the symptoms for as long as possible, with the main form of treatment being chemotherapy.


Asbestosis is a long-term chronic lung disease caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos, according to the NHS. In some people, breathing in asbestos fibres can lead to scarring of the lungs, which causes symptoms like wheezing, fatigue, shortness of breath and a persistent cough.

Asbestosis can get worse over time, and people with this condition unfortunately have an increased risk of developing other related diseases such as the ones mentioned in this blog. Often, these related conditions are more likely to prove fatal than asbestosis itself.

Asbestos-related lung cancer

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

Studies have shown that people who have been exposed to certain substances, with asbestos being one on this list, have a higher likelihood of contracting lung cancer.

Pleural thickening

Pleural thickening is a lung disease in which the pleura, the thin membrane covering the lung, becomes scarred. A build-up of scar tissue can close off the space between the lungs and the pleura, causing chest pain and a loss in breathing function.

Inflammation and the build-up of this scar tissue is caused by asbestos fibres becoming lodged in the pleura when inhaled. This makes the condition the most commonly diagnosed asbestos exposure-related illnesses.

No Time to Lose

In the UK, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) is launching the latest phase of its No Time to Lose campaign, focusing on occupational cancer. This campaign works towards:

● Raising awareness of a significant health issue facing workers in the UK and internationally
● Suggesting some solutions on a UK scale to tackle the problem – a national model that can be transposed internationally
● Offering free practical and original materials to businesses to help them deliver effective prevention programmes.
To find out more and get involved with the No Time to Lose campaign, check out their website here.

Asbestos Awareness Course

Here at SAMS Ltd, we offer two Asbestos Awareness courses.

Our first is a classroom-based course. You can book a place on the course and come down to Kent to do it in our training room, or if you are an employer and want your employees to take the course, then we can travel to you.

Our second is an online Asbestos Awareness course that you can find by going to our website here, then going to our e-Learning page, where you can find our UKATA approved online Asbestos Awareness training.

The courses can help you to understand the dangers of asbestos when you unknowingly encounter these airborne asbestos fibres; as well as learning how to minimise the risk of exposure in our classroom sessions. We offer the courses both in the classroom and online so you can learn in the way that fits you and your schedule best.