Asbestos – The facts

Facts about Asbestos

Breathing in asbestos fibres can damage your lungs. Find out about the risks, how to avoid asbestos and what to do if you think you might have been exposed.

Breathing in asbestos fibres can damage your lungsDiseases from exposure take a long time to develop. Most cases of lung cancer or asbestosis in asbestos workers occur 15 or more years after the initial exposure. Tobacco smokers who have been exposed to asbestos have a “far greater-than-additive” risk for lung cancer than do non smokers who have been exposed, meaning the risk is greater than the individual risks from asbestos and smoking added together. The time between diagnosis of mesothelioma and the time of initial occupational exposure to asbestos commonly has been 30 years or more. Cases of mesotheliomas have been reported after household exposure of family members of asbestos workers and in individuals without occupational exposure who live close to asbestos mines.

What is asbestos?

It is a material often used in buildings. Before its dangers were known, it was widely used for insulation, flooring and roofing. It was also used as pipe insulation and sprayed on ceilings and walls. But after a while it became clear that asbestos can cause serious damage to the lungs. This happens when people breathe in asbestos dust. For this reason, it is now banned in the UK. However, buildings that were constructed before the year 2000 may still have asbestos in them.

Removing the material is a dangerous job that, with a few minor exceptions, must be undertaken by a trained and licensed professional.

Who is most at risk?

People who have been exposed to asbestos through their work are at the highest risk of damage to their lungs. This includes:

  • Carpenters
  • Plumbers
  • Electricians
  • Laggers
  • Painters
  • Builders

People who worked in shipbuilding, railway engineering and factories that made asbestos products also have a higher risk. You might also be at risk if you have lived with a worker who was exposed to asbestos.

Related disease

There are four main diseases associated with inhalation of asbestos fibres.

  • Mesothelioma – a form of cancer mainly affecting the lining of the lungs
  • Asbestos related lung cancer
  • Asbestosis – a non-malignant scarring of the lung tissue
  • Non malignant pleural disease (diffuse pleural thickening and pleural plaques

What does it look like?

Asbestos comes in all shapes, sizes and colours. The three types are blue, brown and white asbestos, which are found in many building products. But as it was often mixed with other materials it can be hard to know if you’ve found it or not.

Here are some examples of what it might look like.

Breathing in asbestos fibres can damage your lungs.

Asbestos comes in all shapes, sizes and colours. The three types are blue, brown and white asbestos, which are found in many building products.

When asbestos fibres are inhaled, most fibres are expelled, but some can become lodged in the lungs and remain there throughout life. Fibres can accumulate and cause scarring and inflammation.

People are more likely to experience asbestos-related disorders when they are exposed to high concentrations of asbestos, are exposed for longer periods of time, and/or are exposed more often.

Facts

  • When asbestos fibres are inhaled, most fibres are expelled, but some can become lodged in the lungs and remain there throughout life. Fibres can accumulate and cause scarring and inflammation. Enough scarring and inflammation can affect breathing, leading to disease.
  • The term “naturally occurring asbestos” refers to the mineral as a natural component of soils or rocks as opposed to asbestos in commercial products, mining or processing operations. Naturally occurring asbestos can be released from rocks or soils by routine human activities, such as construction, or natural weathering processes. If naturally occurring asbestos is not disturbed and fibres are not released into the air, then it is not a health risk.
  • People are more likely to experience asbestos-related disorders when they are exposed to high concentrations of asbestos, are exposed for longer periods of time, and/or are exposed more often.
  • Inhaling longer, more durable asbestos fibres (such as tremolite and other amphiboles) contributes to the severity of asbestos-related disorders.
  • Exposure to asbestos can increase the likelihood of lung cancer, mesothelioma, and non-malignant lung conditions such as asbestosis (restricted use of the lungs due to retained asbestos fibres) and changes in the pleura (lining of the chest cavity, outside the lung).
  • Changes in pleura such as thickening, plaques, calcification, and fluid around the lungs (pleural effusion) may be early signs of asbestos exposure. These changes can affect breathing more than previously thought. Pleural effusion can be an early warning sign for mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of the lungs).
  • Most cases of asbestosis or lung cancer in workers occurred 15 years or more after the person was first exposed to asbestos.
  • Most cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed 30 years or more after the first exposure to asbestos.
  • Asbestos-related disease has been diagnosed in asbestos workers, family members, and residents who live close to asbestos mines or processing plants.
  • Health effects from asbestos exposure may continue to progress even after exposure is stopped.
  • Smoking or cigarette smoke, together with exposure to asbestos, greatly increases the likelihood of lung cancer.

More information can be found from the following sources:

Health and Safety Executive (HSE)
Provides information on asbestos to employers, asbestos contractors and others with duties under asbestos regulations, together with those workers currently at greatest risk from exposure to asbestos.
http://www.hse.gov.uk/asbestos/

The British Lung Foundation
Breathing in asbestos fibres can damage your lungs. Find out about the risks, how to avoid asbestos and what to do if you think you might have been exposed.
http://www.blf.org.uk/Page/Asbestos

The Environmental Agency
A description of asbestos and why it is dangerous. Advice for businesses on asbestos waste disposal.
http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/business/topics/waste/123022.aspx