Asbestos is a set of six naturally occurring silicate minerals, each comprised of long, thin fibrous crystals. In turn, each visible fibre consists of microscopic fibrils that can be released by abrasion and similar processes.
These silicate minerals can be divided into two overarching families: serpentines and amphiboles. The serpentine group contains just one form of asbestos: Chrysotile. This is the most commonly encountered form of asbestos. The amphibole subcategory consists of five different asbestos types: Crocidolite, Amosite, Actinolite, Tremolite and Anthophyllite.
Crocidolite is often referred to as blue asbestos and Amosite as brown asbestos.
In its various forms, asbestos has been mined for over 4,000 years. The Ancient Greeks hailed the “mystical” properties of asbestos, and used it for various purposes, such as insulating buildings and even making clothes. The Romans also used asbestos in their construction processes, appreciating its fire-resistant qualities.
During the Industrial Revolution, asbestos soared in popularity. The proliferation of machinery and steam power created an urgent need for systems to control heat generation. Asbestos was an ideal insulator in this regard, and the first commercial mines were opened to satisfy growing demand.
The material enjoyed a further renaissance in the early 19th century, when its physical properties became readily evident to builders and manufacturers once again. Asbestos is resistant to heat and electricity, among other appealing qualities. It was also relatively affordable, making it a tantalising proposition for business owners.
As time progressed, asbestos was mixed into scores of different products, especially those used in the construction trade. It was used excessively in Britain after World War II, as local councils sought ways of completing mass rebuilding projects in a cost-effective manner.
However, asbestos is a toxic material when disturbed. A serious health risk emerges when asbestos fibres become airborne. As such, working with or near damaged asbestos may result in the inhalation of fibres, which can cause disease and other complications.
Asbestos Problems and Health Risks
Inhalation of asbestos fibres can cause two types of cancer: mesothelioma, a fatal disease of the lung lining, and asbestos-related lung cancer. Asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs, is also a serious possibility when exposed to fibres, as is diffuse pleural thickening, where a crucial membrane within the lungs and chest wall expands.
Though the first documented death relating to asbestos occurred in 1906, and regulations to control exposure in the workplace were enacted in 1969, widespread appreciation of its toxicity didn’t emerge until the 1970s, when brown and blue asbestos were banned voluntarily. A legal ban followed in 1986.
Six years later, in 1992, Britain also banned the import, supply and use of white asbestos. A final ban covering all forms of asbestos was enforced in 1999, concluding an era.
Asbestos can be found in over 3,000 different construction materials. Therefore, almost any building built or refurbished prior to the final ban being implemented can contain asbestos, making it the biggest occupational health hazard in the United Kingdom.
Moreover, at least 3,500 people die each year from asbestos-related diseases and, owing to a latency period of between 10 and 60 years from exposure, that figure is likely to rise.
Almost two decades after it was banned, thousands of tonnes of asbestos still remain in buildings across the country. Various estimates indicate that nearly 2 million commercial properties may still contain asbestos.
In this context, North Star Environmental provides an invaluable service, dispensing impartial advice and committing to the accurate sampling, analysis and management of asbestos nationwide. So get in touch today, and let North Star take care of your environmental consultancy needs.