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Asbestos: what is it, and why is it dangerous?

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Asbestos. Most people have heard of it, and lots of people know it’s dangerous, but not as many people know why it was used so widely before being banned for use in the UK in 1999. On this British Science Week, we’re going to look at what it is, why it’s dangerous, and the role science plays in its identification today.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral with incredibly tiny, spine-shaped fibres. It’s been used for thousands of years due to its unique chemical and physical properties such as strength, durability, and resistance to heat, electricity and chemical damage. These properties made it a popular material used widely across various industries for construction, insulation, and fire-proofing purposes. In the UK, its use dates back to the 1870s on ships, steam engines, and power plants.

When was Asbestos discovered to be dangerous?

Although not the first reported case, to be reported with a link between the cause of death and asbestos in the workplace, In 1924, a woman named Nellie Kershaw died aged 33 of severe fibrosis of the lungs and this was the start of public awareness surrounding the dangers of asbestos.

Retained asbestos fibres were found in her lungs by pathologist William Cooke, and he named the condition asbestosis caused by Nellie’s job working in a factory spinning asbestos fibres into yarn. In 1960, 33 cases of mesothelioma were reported and 32 of those cases were linked to merely being present in the neighbourhood of crocidolite asbestos mining in South Africa, which highlighted that no level of exposure to asbestos above a background level can be considered safe.

When is asbestos dangerous?

In the UK, many buildings both corporate and residential built prior to regulation changes in 1999 still contain ACMs. When present in materials that are in good condition, asbestos doesn’t pose a problem. It does however become a potential danger if it’s going to be disturbed due to building works, demolition, or deterioration of the materials that it’s found to be present in.

That’s why it’s so important to have asbestos surveys carried out and management in place – so you can be aware of potentially asbestos-containing materials and how they might need to be managed going forward.

Asbestos testing today

In our UKAS-accredited laboratory at Environtec, we conduct a lot of soil studies. The tiny size of the asbestos fibres makes them impossible to see with the naked eye unless they’re in an incredibly high concentration in the air. Soil tests are necessary on brownfield sites prior to development, where manmade structures have previously stood. Due to demolition prior to the 1999 regulations or improper removal, there’s the possibility that asbestos could be present in the ground, and disturbing it during development could have fatal consequences for workers involved in site redevelopment.

The work our lab technicians do first determines the presence of asbestos, and then the identification of asbestos types using polarised light microscopes. Using an extremely involved process involving weighing the ACM and measuring contamination as a percentage of this weight, our lab techs can determine the contamination levels of a site.

As well as soil testing, we also have a fleet of mobile laboratories with the ability to take our air monitoring service anywhere in the UK. If asbestos is disturbed, it can be a serious health hazard. We can conduct a number of different tests from our mobile service including reassurance air tests, leak air tests, background air tests, personal air monitoring, and four-stage clearance tests. You can learn more about asbestos air monitoring and what those services involve here.

We’re really proud of what we do, and the role that scientific development plays in our everyday work to manage and oversee the disposal of asbestos to keep both workers and the public safe.

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Environtec Ltd is a UKAS accredited testing laboratory (No. 0197) and inspection body (No. 2030).

Our accreditation is limited to those activities described on our UKAS schedule of accreditation.