What is Asbestos?

January 30, 2017
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5000 deaths per year are the result of past asbestos exposure and, although asbestos is now banned in the UK, it can still be found in certain environments. If your work is likely to disturb asbestos, it’s important that you are aware of the associated risks.

You’ll be in danger of encountering asbestos at work if you carry out refurbishments or maintenance trades. Examples of people who are commonly at risk include:

  • Builders.
  • Carpenters and joiners.
  • Roofing contractors.
  • Fire and burglar alarm installers.

Working with asbestos poses many hazards to human health.

What Exactly is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally-occurring, fibrous mineral that was predominantly used as a building material in the UK between the 1950s and 1980s. Mined in countries such as Russia, Brazil, South Africa and China, asbestos fibres were woven into fabrics or mixed in cement and used all around the world.

Materials made with asbestos are strong, incombustible, heat-resistant and sound-absorbent, making asbestos an attractive material for electrical and building insulation, among other uses.

In the UK, any building or material manufactured or refurbished before the year 2000 may contain asbestos. Therefore, you have an increased risk of encountering it when working on pre-2000 properties.

In 1999, the UK banned asbestos, due to an increased incidence of lung-related diseases in those working with the substance. Currently, over 50 countries prohibit the use of asbestos, but it’s still commonly used in some countries, such as India, China, Russia and Indonesia.


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What are the Different Types of Asbestos?

The term asbestos refers to six unique minerals belonging to two mineral families, serpentine and amphibole. All forms of asbestos are highly toxic, and exposure can lead to the development of many terminal diseases, such as mesothelioma.

The three main types of asbestos that you may come across whilst carrying out building work are:

  • Chrysotile (white asbestos). Chrysotile is the most commonly used type of asbestos and is often contaminated with trace amounts of tremolite. Chrysotile fibres are usually fine in texture, possessing high flexibility and good heat resistant properties, making it ideal for use in cement, brake pads/linings and roofing materials.
  • Amosite (brown asbestos). Mined mostly in Africa, amosite is a particularly strong and heat-resistant type of asbestos that was commonly used in cement sheet, plumbing insulation and electrical insulation. Though all types of asbestos are toxic, amosite asbestos exposure has a comparatively higher cancer risk.
  • Crocidolite (blue asbestos). Crocidolite has very thin fibres and, if inhaled, are easily lodged in the lungs. It’s thin fibres and brittle nature make crocidolite one of the most harmful forms of asbestos, as it easily breaks down and leads to asbestos exposure.


Tremolite, Actinolite and Anthophyllite

There are three minor types of asbestos that you may hear about. Tremolite, actinolite and anthophyllite have never been sold commercially. Instead, they were often found as contaminants in commercially sold asbestos products.


Tremolite fibres are often found as a contaminant in chrysotile asbestos and found in paints, sealants, asbestos-containing insulation products and talc products. It can manifest in several colours, including white, green and grey, and is useful as it can be spun and woven into cloth.


Actinolite fibres are lightweight and generally dark in colour. It comes in various forms, including brittle and fibrous or dense and compact, and is often found in paints, sealants and drywall. Additionally, actinolite expands when heated, making it an effective insulation material. This property has led to actinolite being commonly used as insulation materials and structural fire-proofing.


Anthophyllite fibres are grey-brown in colour, commonly found as a contaminant in composite flooring. While anthophyllite is considered to be non-commercial, it was regularly used in products containing vermiculite and talc, such as talcum powder. Even though most studies suggest that the risk of developing mesothelioma from this type of asbestos is much lower than amosite, chrysotile and crocidolite asbestos, there is still a clear link between anthophyllite and the disease.

To learn more about asbestos exposure, have a look at our article: What are the Symptoms of Asbestos Exposure?

How Can I Tell If Asbestos is Present?

The short answer is that you can’t tell by sight, smell or colour. Asbestos is a fibrous material that comes in many colours, shapes and forms. The fibres are also incredibly small: about 10 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

The only way you can know for definite that asbestos is present is by having the material tested by a specialist laboratory. Find out more here: How to Test For Asbestos.

Fortunately, asbestos only releases harmful fibres if disturbed and doesn’t cause harm unless it’s inhaled. So if you don’t know whether or not a material you come across is asbestos, your safest bet is to leave it alone and seek specialist advice.

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