What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a set of six naturally occurring silicate minerals, sharing something called an asbestiform habit, meaning they have long, thin, fibrous crystals. Each visible fibre comprises millions of microscopic ‘fibrils’ which abrasion and similar processes will release. These are typically known by their colours – blue, brown or white asbestos.
Asbestos is found in numerous materials commonly used in the building trade. It may also be in things like lagging or roofing felt, or in a loose form in a ceiling or floor cavity.
It’s a notoriously tricky thing to identify, since it can often be mixed with other materials.
A brief history
More than four thousand years ago, this substance was already being mined. However, mining on a large-scale started as the nineteenth century was ending, after asbestos’s desirable physical qualities, from sound absorption to strength, fire resistance and affordability, were noticed. It was also used in electrical and building insulation. Often, the fibres would be mixed with cement or woven into fabric or mats.
Indeed, such was its popularity the material was once dubbed ‘miraculous’.
When was it banned?
It was banned in the UK in all its forms in August 1999, when the then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott signed the Asbestos (Prohibitions) (Amendment) Regulations 1999. It became law three months later, five years ahead of the European deadline.
By 1999, in any case, chrystotile was the only kind of asbestos allowed in the UK since the 1985 banning of amosite and crocidolite.
And the most perilous type of asbestos hasn’t been used here since the 1970s, when a voluntary industry ban came into effect. Even where it was used, only those working in particular sectors came into close contact with it – including carpentry, ship building and construction.
What the 1999 complete ban means is that if a building was completed in or after 2000, it is unlikely to have any asbestos. But if you are unsure of when a structure was finished, you should assume it is present. Equally, some brownfield sites may have buried asbestos and it may also still be present in old equipment such as fire blankets or soundproofing.
The dangers to builders
The reality is that most builders, at some point during their working lives, are likely to find themselves on a site where asbestos is present.
Asbestos is completely toxic as far as the human circulatory system is concerned. Indeed, it can very frequently be fatal. Moving or otherwise disturbing the fibres makes them airborne so that they can be inhaled and will sit in a person’s system, often for years on end. There are no symptoms and no way of knowing you’ve inhaled the fibres, until, perhaps years or even decades later, when the threads give rise to a typically life-threatening condition from which it’s all but impossible to make a recovery.
In almost every case of mesothelioma, for example, an incurable cancer affecting the lining of the lung, the cause can be traced to asbestos exposure. Despite the asbestos legislation now in place, there are more mesothelioma deaths in the UK than in any other country in the world, with more than double the number of deaths from this than motor vehicle accidents.
Any builder working on a site known to contain asbestos is putting themselves at risk, if the correct precautions are not taken or relevant information is not available or provided. Just demolishing a structure disturbs the fibres and puts workers at risk of inhaling them.
So all firms carrying out building at a site thought to contain asbestos need to ensure a proper specialist survey is completed before anyone sets foot on the site (a Refurbishment / Demolition Asbestos Survey).
What to do if you come across potential asbestos
The first thing to do is to stop work immediately on any site where there’s even a possibility of asbestos presence and the relevant information has not been provided. Either confirm what the substance is, by using a UKAS accredited asbestos surveying company, or assume it is asbestos and conduct a risk assessment. This will help you to decide whether the work should be completed by a licensed contractor. Only those with the right information, instruction and training should carry out non-licensed work in asbestos.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has a comprehensive area of its website where you can find out more about asbestos.
Visit it here:
Get an asbestos survey
So, clearly, this is not a substance you can afford to take any chances with, especially in the building trade. An asbestos survey is an essential part in protecting yourself and others.
At Core Surveys, based in Fletching Common, East Sussex and Monmouthshire, South Wales, we’re ideally placed to serve customers across London, the South East, Wales and the South West. We’re fully accredited to undertake all types of asbestos inspections and testing, while also providing asbestos management surveys and awareness training. Our clients include everyone from homeowners to charities and large organisations – we help them comply with the latest guidance and legislation on asbestos. Talk to a member of the team today to find out more.