The following advice is designed to give a basic understanding of asbestos and asbestos containing materials. It is a ‘first port of call’ for those with an enquiry relating to asbestos, whether a householder or business. The advice pages contain contact details for further enquiries and details of publications containing comprehensive guidance on subjects from work on asbestos to legislation.
Asbestos is a term used for a naturally occurring group of minerals which have a fibrous crystal habit. Three types of asbestos have been commercially used for a variety of products, these are crocidolite (blue asbestos), amosite (brown asbestos) and chrysotile (white asbestos).
All types are dangerous as the fibres will break down to form microscopic needles which can be breathed into the lungs. The different types of asbestos may vary in colour and cannot be identified by their colour alone, a laboratory analysis is required.
Breathing in air containing asbestos fibres can lead to asbestos-related diseases, mainly cancers of the lung and chest lining. Asbestos-related disease is the biggest occupational health killer in the UK with 3,000 people currently dying each year, 25% of these once worked in the building and maintenance trades and often would have worked unknowingly on asbestos containing materials.
It is now illegal to use asbestos in the construction or refurbishment of any premises but many thousands of tonnes were used in the past and much will still be in place. As long as the asbestos is in good condition and will not be disturbed or damaged there is no risk. If, however, it is disturbed or damaged it can become a danger to health because the needle-like fibres may be released into the air and become inhaled.
Anyone who comes into contact with fibres can be at risk. Those who will be at particular risk are those who may disturb asbestos, anyone whose work involves drilling, sawing or cutting into the fabric of premises could potentially be at risk. The scientific evidence on exactly what exposures of asbestos causes disease is unclear but it is known the more asbestos fibres breathed in, the greater the risk to health.
Asbestos may be found almost anywhere in a building. Generally, the products containing a high percentage of asbestos (up to 90%) are more fragile and easily damaged, such as pipe or boiler lagging. Those products containing low percentages of asbestos (10-15%), such as asbestos cement roofing sheets, are more robust. In these products the asbestos fibres are bound into the cement and will only be released if the material is badly damaged, broken or otherwise machined (cut, drilled, sanded etc).
You are most likely to come across asbestos in the materials listed below:-
sprayed asbestos and asbestos loose packing – used as fire breaks in voids
moulded or pre-formed lagging – used in thermal insulation of pipes and boilers
sprayed asbestos – generally used as fire protection in ducts, fire breaks, panels, structural steelwork, partitions, soffit boards and ceiling panels
insulation boards used for fire protection, thermal insulation, partitioning and ducts
some ceiling tiles
millboard, paper and paper products used for insulation of electrical equipment. Asbestos paper has also been used as a fire-proof facing on wood fibreboard
asbestos cement products, which can be fully or semi-compressed into flat or corrugated sheets, gutters, rainwater pipes and water tanks
certain textured coatings
some bitumen roofing material
vinyl or thermoplastic floor tiles
The commercial use of asbestos in the UK began around the end of the 1800’s and increased gradually until 1939. Immediately after World War II, large quantities of asbestos were used, particularly for new ‘system-built’ buildings in the 1950’s, 1960’s and early 1970’s. Asbestos products were also routinely used in the refurbishment of older buildings. Since the late 1980’s asbestos containing products were phased out with a total ban imposed by 1999.