Health and Safety News

Occupational health and safety news and guidance

Asbestos: The Facts

blue asbestos fibresDespite incessant media coverage and tremulous word-of-mouth horror stories, the risks of asbestos continue to be underestimated.

The fact is that asbestos can be lethal. The lack of immediate symptoms is deceptive, and can often mean that those handling the substance are unaware of the danger they are in. However, with the right knowledge, you can stay safe if you encounter asbestos, whether at home or in the workplace.

The risks

It’s important that you know what you risk when you’re exposed to asbestos. Because it’s an asbestiform mineral (hence the name), it is made up of tiny crystal fibres that can be inhaled unnoticed.

These crystals are carcinogenic. Inhalation of asbestos fibres has been linked to several types of cancer, most prolifically lung cancer and mesothelioma. In the UK, mesothelioma caused 2,291 deaths in 2011

There is a significant latency period with asbestos of up to 30 years, which is why most asbestos-related diseases develop in later life. Because asbestos fibres can stick to clothes, even passive inhalation can trigger these cancers. Problematically, by the time most victims are made aware of their symptoms, too much damage has already been done.

Locating asbestos

Because of its abundance in favourable building properties, asbestos was widely used in construction after proving cheap to make during the industrial revolution. Not only was it fireproof and a great insulator but it also had a high tensile strength due to its fibrous composite.

In short, it was strong, it was heat-proof and, most importantly, it was cost-effective.

The toxicity was only discovered in the 20th century, and eventually the UK government issued a ban in 1985. However, if you have a house or an office building built prior to the year 2000, it’s likely that somewhere in the architecture there are traces of asbestos, especially in lofts or around piping. This means that potentially you could be at risk.

If you think you’ve been exposed

The first thing to remember is that asbestos is usually only dangerous when it is disturbed, because that’s what causes the crystal fibres to come loose from the aggregate and become airborne. In most cases, undisturbed asbestos is not immediately perilous, especially if it is used to reinforce concrete or other similar materials.

That being said, if you have any concerns that you might be exposed, you should:

  • Schedule an appointment with your GP.
  • Remain vigilant for symptoms of mesothelioma including chronic coughing, chest pain or shortness of breath. When consulting a physician, inform them of the time of your exposure; it should be a couple of decades prior to the symptoms.
  • Consult your employer if you are exposed to asbestos in your workplace. You could be entitled to compensation if it affects your health.
  • Counter potential anxiety issues by talking to a counsellor.

The good news to take away is that asbestos is far less ubiquitous than it has been in the past. If we remain informed and pre-emptive, we can ensure that future generations won’t be at risk to the dangers.

Author bio

Linda Williams works for Carrs Solicitors, a legal agency based in the UK that specialises in helping victims of work-related accidents claim the compensation they deserve.

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