Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral which has fascinated, helped and, unfortunately, harmed civilisations for centuries. It has many desirable qualities, including sound absorption and resistance to chemical corrosion, heat, fire and electricity. It’s also abundant; found in as much as two-thirds of the rocks in the earth’s crust.
The earliest written record of Asbestos comes to us from the Ancient Greek Philosopher Theophrastus in his work On Stones, written around 300BC. However, evidence of its use dates back over 4,500 years ago to Stone Age Finland, where it has been found in pots and cooking utensils. The Ancient Egyptians would cremate their dead, wrapped in sheaths of asbestos fibres, ensuring that the ashes were purely those of the deceased and not mixed with burnt burial cloths.
In Ancient Greece, asbestos was used to make the wicks of the “eternal flames of the vestal virgins”. And, wealthy Persians would amaze dinner guests by throwing dirty tablecloths woven of asbestos into the fire, only to be pulled out unharmed and cleaner than before.
Throughout the modern era, it became more and more widely used in many different applications, from industrial processes to household products. It seemed to be the perfect ingredient to make almost anything better. But we were wrong.
So what exactly is asbestos? Where might you find it? And why is it so dangerous?
What is Asbestos?
The term Asbestos refers to 6 different fibrous minerals; Chrysotile, Amosite, Crocidolite, Tremolite, Anthophyllite and Actinolite.
These 6 minerals are split into two groups: Serpentines and Amphiboles. Chrysotile is the only member of the Serpentine group, the other 5 minerals belong to the Amphiboles.
Amphiboles are made up of straight, stiff, rod-like fibres, whereas the Serpentine Chrysotile is formed of curly, scroll-like fibres.
Of the 6 types of asbestos, only Chrysotile, Amosite and Crocidolite were commonly used in the UK. Let’s take a closer look at them:
Also known as “White Asbestos”, this mineral accounts for 90-95% of all commercially used asbestos.
Among other things, it’s been used in cement-making, brake pads, roofing materials, gaskets and as insulation.
Due to its widespread use, Chrysotile was the last asbestos mineral to be banned in the UK in 1999.
Known commercially as “Brown Asbestos”, this is the second most widely used asbestos mineral.
It’s commonly used in various forms of insulation, for ceiling, roof and floor tiles and cement sheets.
Amosite was fully banned in the UK in 1985.
Studies show that this mineral, often called “Blue Asbestos”, may be responsible for more deaths than any other type of asbestos.
Crocidolite is often used in ceiling tiles, spray-on insulation, acid storage battery casings and electrical wires.
In the UK, Crocidolite was banned, alongside Amosite, in 1985.
The Dangers of Asbestos
As we’ve seen, asbestos is both a fibrous mineral and is difficult to destroy chemically. This combination of factors is what makes asbestos so dangerous.
Asbestos left untouched is not hazardous but when it is handled, broken-down, drilled or cut in any way it can release tiny fibres into the air, which can be breathed in. Most of these fibres will stick to the mucous membranes in the nose and throat, where they will naturally work their way out. However, some fibres will make it all the way into your lungs where their shape and resistance to chemical reaction makes them almost impossible for your body to remove.
Crocidolite is considered the most dangerous asbestos mineral because its fibres are the smallest, barely the width of a human hair, and so are much easier to breathe into your lungs.
Asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma are all associated with prolonged asbestos exposure.
Testing for Asbestos
Many buildings, including homes and offices, still contain asbestos. As long as it remains undisturbed, it’s not a threat. However, if you’re planning building work then you’ll need to know for certain. To do this you will a professional to test for asbestos for you.
Never test for Asbestos yourself! Only HSE licensed contractors should test for asbestos and only they can remove it.
Asbestos Awareness Training
Our Asbestos Awareness Training aims to provide you with a better understanding and awareness of Asbestos. It helps you work towards compliance with the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 & CDM regulations 2015 and can be completed in just 30 minutes! You can claim a free, no-obligation trial of our Asbestos Awareness Training, which grants you instant access to the course: get your free trial today!