What Is Asbestos?

What is Asbestos

There are many problems that can occur in pre-2000 buildings – one of them is asbestos. You may have heard of asbestos, but don’t know a lot about it. This is the case for a lot of people, they have heard the term, but have no idea what it is or why it can be a danger.

In this blog post, we hope to answer some of your asbestos questions so that you will know a bit more about it than you did before. So, without further ado, let us get straight down to business.

What Is Asbestos?

‘Asbestos’ is the name given to six naturally occurring minerals – ‘silicate minerals’. In fact ‘silicate minerals’ in general, form about 90% of the earth’s crust, but a few of them developed into a fibrous structure under vast heat and pressure over geological timescales. The lattice structure of these fibres tends to make them extremely durable. Because it’s silicon based, it’s very heat-resistant and much of it is very resistant to chemical attack by acids and the like. Blue asbestos is also resistant to radiation and so it was widely used in the earlier nuclear power stations. Long before this, as far back as AD59, it was recorded that inhaling asbestos fibres led to respiratory problems. The durability and heat resistance of asbestos, made it an ideal strengthening and binding additive to many building materials from the 1880’s onwards. Then because huge amounts of wood were needed for the war-effort in both the First and Second World Wars, the use of asbestos (as a substitute building material), mushroomed during this time (regardless of discoveries in the 1920 as to why asbestos fibres caused lung damage). Moving to the 1960’s, the health problems associated with asbestos, became more widely known and this led to a ‘Voluntary Ban’ on blue asbestos in the UK in 1965. This wasn’t as effective as politicians had hoped, so that it was declared illegal as a building material in 1975. Brown asbestos was subsequently banned in 1985 and all other types of asbestos were banned (for sale or for re-use), in the UK in November 1999.

A large part of the problem with asbestos fibres, is that in use, they can easily break down into very short lengths (a few thousandths of a millimetre long). At this point, they’re invisible and you can unknowingly breathe in clouds of them. It’s not like breathing in smelly chemicals or smoke (which you’re aware of instantly). The asbestos dust is invisible and has no smell ~ which is why asbestos is sometimes known as the silent killer.

Where Do You Find It?

As asbestos is a natural mineral – so it’s found in the natural world like any other mineral. Asbestos is thought to have first been mined in ancient Greece – even the word ‘asbestos’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘inextinguishable’ (from its’ resistance to fire). It also occurs naturally in Canada, China, India, Russia, South Africa and the USA. Once it’s mined, it’s cleaned and processed and added into the various building materials.

How Do You Mine It?

Asbestos is mined like a lot of other minerals, often using open cast mines. As it’s mined, it’s usually contaminated with various other minerals and debris and these have to be separated out before the asbestos can be used. Asbestos mining reached its peak for a few years in the 1960’s and 70’s (before it’s use started to become limited in the Western World). It’s still mined in China, India and Russia.

How Do People Use Asbestos?

Commonly, it’s mixed into cement slurries to make both flat and corrugated sheets. The asbestos fibres hold the cement together, a bit like a lot of tree roots would bind soil and clay together ~ and as it’s all bound together with asbestos, it’s very fire resistant and so can be used as cladding to protect other areas against hot boilers etc., or as the flue pipes from boilers. It’s also formed into shapes to make the ridge sections on roofs, guttering and rain water down pipes. It’s also been used in the manufacture of water tanks (that then sit up in lofts and supply water to the building below). It’s been used in the manufacture of WC cisterns, floor tiles and even the adhesive that sticks down the floor tiles. Part of the reason for the decline of the slate industry from the 1950’s, is that technology to make artificial roof slates from asbestos cement (dyed to look like slate), commenced at a price which under-cut traditional slate mining. About this time, asbestos also began to be used as fire protection around the structural trussed concrete beams being used in the new multi-storey buildings (and this contributed greatly to the asbestos contamination in New York, following the collapse of the World Trade Centres in 2001). Asbestos was also used in the manufacture of brake pads for cars (and this is believed to have led to the death of many car mechanics, as they blew out the resulting black dust from wheel hubs with compressed air during car servicing).

What Should I Do About Asbestos ?

If your property (in the UK), was built before 2000, it’s important that you have it checked out, as damaged or insecure asbestos can be a serious hazard. If your house is about to be refurbished (or even demolished), there’s a legal obligation to have it surveyed for asbestos first (as during this time, it’s the place of work for the time being, of the workmen involved). For domestic, commercial and industrial buildings, this is where Pass Consulting can help, carrying out a thorough and independent survey of your building or land, to identify any problems, suggest a management plan and help you to protect your family, your staff and yourself.

Log on to Pass Consulting’s website, which includes a section : ‘The Survey You Need’, which comprehensively takes you through the various property situations that apply to you ~ and what is or isn’t required for each.

Hopefully, this article has helped shed some light on these curious but dangerous mineral fibres ~ and the actions you should take to better protect yourself from them.