Top 9 FAQ On Asbestos

Top 9 FAQs about asbestos

Asbestos is a dangerous mineral that causes thousands of deaths in the UK each year. As a result, it is important that anyone who works around asbestos, or is likely to come into contact with it at work, fully understands what it is and the dangers associated with asbestos.

In this article, we will answer several frequently asked questions about asbestos.

If you or your workplace require asbestos training, consider our Asbestos Awareness training course that can be purchased here.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is the collective term given to a group of silicate materials whose crystals occur in fibrous forms. It was used extensively within the 20th century in a wide range of products, including textiles, plastics and cement.

What does asbestos look like?

There are two main types of asbestos:

  • Serpentine asbestos.
  • Amphibole asbestos.

Although chemically and mineralogically different, both exhibit high resistance to temperatures and high force.

Serpentine is made of wavy, wool like fibres that can be easily bent or spiralled.

Serpentine asbestos

Chrysotile, commonly referred to as 'white asbestos', is a form of serpentine asbestos that was used in a multitude of products such as asbestos cement roof sheets and brake linings.

Chrysotile asbestos

Amphibole asbestos is formed of needle-like shards, much like fibreglass, and is resistant to being bent or curled.

Amphibole asbestos

There are two main types of amphibole asbestos that were used: amosite and crocidolite. Amosite is commonly known as 'brown asbestos', and was used in a wide range of products such as ceiling tiles, floor tiles and insulation boards.

Amosite asbestos

Crocidolite, commonly known as 'blue asbestos', has a lower heat resistance which makes it less useful than other forms of asbestos, but it was still used frequently in products such as asbestos cement, water storage cisterns and water tanks.

Crocidolite asbestos

What does asbestos tile look like?

Tiles containing asbestos were commonly used between around 1920 and 1960. To view some example images of these tiles, click here to open the HSE's asbestos image gallery.

It is important to be aware that it is very difficult to tell if a tile contains asbestos from just sight alone. Instead, if you suspect that your tiling contains asbestos, a sample should be taken and sent to be properly tested before any further action is taken. For more information on removing asbestos, click here to view our FAQs on asbestos removal article.

Where does asbestos come from?

Asbestos is a group of six naturally occurring silicate minerals that all have a thin fibrous crystal structure. These minerals are:

  • Chrysotile
  • Amosite
  • Crocidolite
  • Tremolite
  • Anthophyllite
  • Actinolite

Asbestos is formed in the earth’s mantle when a hot magnesium rich rock, such as peridotite, reacts with water. When this happens, it forms several hydrated magnesium silicates, including asbestos, that can be mined.

At its peak, asbestos was mined at a rate of around 4.8 million tonnes per year and, despite its well documented dangers, it is still mined at a rate of around 1.1 million tonnes per year today.

What is asbestos poisoning?

Asbestos is formed of many small mineral fibres. When disturbed, these fibres can split into smaller and thinner fibres, eventually becoming microscopic in size.

If a person is exposed to these asbestos fibres, they can be inhaled and end up in the lungs or blood, which increases a person's risk of developing potentially fatal diseases including:

  • Mesothelioma (which is always fatal).
  • Lung cancer (which is usually fatal).
  • Asbestosis (which is often fatal).
  • Pleural thickening 'plaques' (which is not fatal).

Asbestos poisoning and asbestos exposure are major problems, with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website stating that there are 'over 5,000 asbestos-related disease deaths per year currently'.

When was asbestos banned?

The import and use of asbestos has been illegal in the UK since the late 20th century. More specifically, blue and brown asbestos (amosite and crocidolite asbestos) was banned in 1985, and white asbestos (chrysotile asbestos) was banned in 1999.

In the years since, there have been several pieces of legislation designed to protect those who are around or work with asbestos. The most recent of these is the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012.

Why is asbestos dangerous?

As previously mentioned, asbestos is formed of many small mineral fibres that can cause a number of fatal diseases if inhaled. It was used in a wide range of materials, and can often be found in buildings that were built before 2000.

All of this means that those who work on buildings are likely to be exposed to asbestos-containing materials, increasing the already-significant dangers associated with it.

It is important to note that some asbestos containing materials (ACMs) are more dangerous than others. This is because some ACMs are 'friable':

  • Friable materials are easily reduced to powder when dry, which allows them to release fibres more easily into the air. Some examples of friable ACMs include spray coatings, thermal lagging and ceiling tiles.
  • In contrast, non-friable materials feature asbestos that is firmly bound in the matrix of the material. This means that, if left undisturbed, they are unlikely to release measurable amounts of asbestos fibres. Some examples of non-friable ACMs include asbestos cement roof sheets, vinyl floor tiles and plastic moulded toilet cisterns.

When was asbestos first used?

Asbestos has been used for over 4,500 years, and has been found in prehistoric cooking pots and the cloths of embalmed pharaohs. However, its use grew rapidly during the 1800s as the many benefits of asbestos were discovered, including its strong:

  • Heat resistant properties (making it useful for insulation and braking systems).
  • Fire resistance (which is useful for cement products and fibre boards).
  • Electrical resistance (making it a good insulator for electrical appliances).
  • Sound absorbance (which led to its use in acoustic sound insulation).
  • High tensile strength (which made it ideal for adding strength to cements and plastics). 

Consumption of asbestos in the United States peaked at 804,000 tons in 1973, with the worldwide demand peaking four years later in 1977. This occurred in spite of the fact that the dangers of asbestos were well known and had been investigated since 1924, when the death of a 33 year old weaver was directly linked to asbestos.

How do I tell the difference between cellulose and asbestos insulation?

Cellulose is a material that is often used in insulation products in place of asbestos. It is made of recycled paper products, such as newspaper and cardboard boxes, that have been shredded and turned into fibres.

Cellulose insulation looks very similar to asbestos insulation, with the main difference between them being that asbestos insulation often looks slightly more brown or gold when compared to cellulose insulation, which is usually slightly greyer.

However, if you suspect that your insulation contains asbestos, it is important that you do not disturb it or inspect it yourself. Instead, call a professional who can inspect the insulation and, if necessary, take a sample to be tested. They should also be able to discuss the best approach to take with you if your insulation does contain asbestos.

Asbestos is highly dangerous, and everyone who is likely to come into contact with it must be suitably trained. At Commodious, we offer an IATP-approved asbestos awareness course and certificate for just £10 + VAT. To find out more about this course, use the link below: