Identifying Asbestos

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is the name given to a group of six different fibrous minerals (amosite, chrysotile, crocidolite, and the fibrous varieties of tremolite, actinolite, and anthophyllite) that occur naturally in the environment. Asbestos minerals have separable long fibers that are strong and flexible enough to be spun and woven and are heat resistant. Because of these characteristics, asbestos has been used for a wide range of manufactured goods, mostly in building materials (roofing shingles, ceiling and floor tiles, paper products, and asbestos cement products), friction products (automobile clutch, brake, and transmission parts), heat-resistant fabrics, packaging, gaskets, and coatings. Some vermiculite or talc products may contain asbestos.

Identifying Asbestos

Do you know if you have asbestos in your property?

There are thousands of products that contain asbestos and these are referred to as being "asbestos containing materials" - and they come in all shapes and sizes.

Asbestos has been used since the late 1800's and the health probelms associated with the material have been well known by the asbestos industry since that time - surprisingly though, the asbestos industry was able to continue producing products in the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia and many other countries until at least the late 1980's.

Many commercial and residential properties all over the world contain asbestos in some form or other. Because asbestos, a naturally occurring material, is so versatile, it's uses were extremely versatile, though it's primary use was as a fire retardant.

If you suspect that you have asbestos in your property, it is best to get a professional to identify they type of asbestos before doing any work. Asbestos should never be disturbed or broken.

Most usually, commercial buildings will contain asbestos or asbestos containing materials, though it is also found in certain cases in domestic properties.

Corrugated roofs and roof liners are found extensively in the UK on indiustrial units and these are usually made from asbestos cement. The type of asbestos used in cement products is Chrysotile or "white asbestos". because the asbestos is contained within a cement based matrix, then it's usally fairly safe - though some experts claim that there is no such thing as safe asbestos.

If an asbestos roof (whether on an industrial unit or on a dmestic garage or shed) is in good condition and it doesn't leak, there is no reason to change it. If occasional panels need replacing due to damage, this can be done by a competent roofer who will generally replace the affected panels with a non-asbestos equivalent. It is no longer possible to buy new asbestos roof panels in the UK, the USA or Australia.

Some properties contain what is known as "asbestos insulation board" which is made from a mix of Amoste (brown) and Chrysotile (white) asbestos. It is this asbestos that is currently causing concern, because often, people don't know that the board is made from asbestos.

Much softer than cement based products, asbestos insulation board when drilled, or damaged, can easily release fibres into the air, which can then be inhaled into the lubgs. The fibres are virtually invisible to the naked eye, yet if they lodge into the lining of the lungs, can cause "Pleural Plaques", a permanent scarring that can later lead to hardening of the lubg tissue, creating severe breathing difficulties. This is the condition known as Asbestosis, or Mesothelioma - a cancerous condition associated with asbestos exposure.

Blue asbestos, known as Crocilodite, was used in buildings that required strong amounts of insulation - either from heat or from condensation (for example in swimming pools or boiler rooms). This is the most dangerous form of asbestos and must not be disturbed unless it is being removed by experts - usually licensed contractors.

Some AIB boards have been known to contain blue asbestos.

There is no way of knowing what type of asbestos you are dealing with and for this reason, non-qualified people should attempt to remove it.

What happens to Asbestos when it enters the environment?

Asbestos fibers can enter the air or water from the breakdown of natural deposits and manufactured asbestos products. Asbestos fibers do not evaporate into air or dissolve in water. Small diameter fibers and particles may remain suspended in the air for a long time and be carried long distances by wind or water before settling down. Larger diameter fibers and particles tend to settle more quickly.

Asbestos fibers are not able to move through soil. Asbestos fibers are generally not broken down to other compounds and will remain virtually unchanged over long periods.

How might I be exposed to asbestos?

We are all exposed to low levels of asbestos in the air we breathe. These levels range from 0.00001 to 0.0001 fibers per milliliter of air and generally are highest in cities and industrial areas.

People working in industries that make or use asbestos products or who are involved in asbestos mining may be exposed to high levels of asbestos. People living near these industries may also be exposed to high levels of asbestos in air.

Asbestos fibers may be released into the air by the disturbance of asbestos-containing material during product use, demolition work, building or home maintenance, repair, and remodeling. In general, exposure may occur only when the asbestos-containing material is disturbed in some way to release particles and fibers into the air.

Drinking water may contain asbestos from natural sources or from asbestos-containing cement pipes.

How can asbestos affect my health?

Asbestos mainly affects the lungs and the membrane that surrounds the lungs. Breathing high levels of asbestos fibers for a long time may result in scar-like tissue in the lungs and in the pleural membrane (lining) that surrounds the lung. This disease is called asbestosis and is usually found in workers exposed to asbestos, but not in the general public. People with asbestosis have difficulty breathing, often a cough, and in severe cases heart enlargement. Asbestosis is a serious disease and can eventually lead to disability and death.

Breathing lower levels of asbestos may result in changes called plaques in the pleural membranes. Pleural plaques can occur in workers and sometimes in people living in areas with high environmental levels of asbestos. Effects on breathing from pleural plaques alone are not usually serious, but higher exposure can lead to a thickening of the pleural membrane that may restrict breathing.

How likely is asbestos to cause cancer?

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the EPA have determined that asbestos is a human carcinogen.

It is known that breathing asbestos can increase the risk of cancer in people. There are two types of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos: lung cancer and mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a cancer of the thin lining surrounding the lung (pleural membrane) or abdominal cavity (the peritoneum). Cancer from asbestos does not develop immediately, but shows up after a number of years. Studies of workers also suggest that breathing asbestos can increase chances of getting cancer in other parts of the body (stomach, intestines, esophagus, pancreas, and kidneys), but this is less certain. Early identification and treatment of any cancer can increase an individual's quality of life and survival.

Cigarette smoke and asbestos together significantly increase your chances of getting lung cancer. Therefore, if you have been exposed to asbestos you should stop smoking. This may be the most important action that you can take to improve your health and decrease your risk of cancer.