Asbestos is non-flammable, heat resistant, and extremely flexible and durable. It was nicknamed “the magic mineral” because these properties made it suitable for use in thousands of products.
Asbestos has also been dubbed “the hidden killer”. When materials containing asbestos are damaged or disturbed, fibres are released into the air. Each fibre is so small it is invisible to the naked eye. When breathed in, the fibres, remain in your body, and can cause a number of different diseases.
Even today, around 5,000 workers in the UK die each year from asbestos-related diseases. Because they typically take years to develop, more people are still being diagnosed with these diseases each year, even though asbestos is now banned.
In the UK, the import, supply and use of crocidolite (‘blue asbestos’) and amosite (‘brown asbestos’) was banned as of 1st January 1986. Chrysotile (‘white asbestos’) was similarly banned as of 24th November 1999.
However, many buildings built before these dates still contain asbestos, and so even today people are still being exposed to asbestos.
Due to its unique chemical composition and physical properties, in the 20th century asbestos was used in over 3,000 products, including:
cement building materials
lagging for boilers and pipework
insulating mattresses and rope
fire resistant insulation boards
sprayed fire-proofing products
floor tiles and coverings
water and sewage pipe
acoustic and thermal insulation
ropes, yarns and cloths
millboard and paper
friction materials for vehicle brakes,
clutches, lifts and machinery
mastics, sealants, putties, adhesives,
and wall plugging compound
Many of these products are still being manufactured, sold and used in the developing word, even today. However, asbestos has been found in places you would not expect. The Royal Yacht Britannia was riddled with asbestos, and asbestos has been found in the roof space and ventilation ducts of the House of Commons.
In Britain, asbestos is often associated with heavy industry, due to its widespread use in power stations, shipbuilding, the railways, and in the dockyards.
Although the use of asbestos was finally banned in Britain in 1999, asbestos is still present in the fabric of the buildings in which many of us live and work, for example in wall cavities and lofts.
Consequently many of us are still being exposed to asbestos despite the ban, with workers involved in the maintenance, refurbishment or demolition of older buildings being particularly at risk.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website has further information on where asbestos may be found in industrial and residential properties.
There are a number of different asbestos-related diseases.
It is important to know which disease you have, as they vary hugely in terms of the impact they may have on your health.
Diffuse Pleural Thickening
The pleura is a membrane that surrounds your lungs and lines the inside of your rib cage. After breathing in asbestos fibres, these fibres can work their out to the pleura, causing scarring and hardening. The pleura then thickens, which can cause breathlessness. If x-ray evidence suggests your pleural thickening is severe enough, you may be able to get industrial injuries benefits. You may also be able to get civil compensation.
These are localised areas of thickening caused by asbestos fibres which have worked their way out to the pleura. Pleural plaques are usually symptomless. Pleural plaques are a sign that you have been exposed to asbestos, but you cannot get benefits or compensation for having this disease if your only exposure to asbestos took place in England.
Exposure to asbestos increases the risk of developing lung cancer. However, there are many other causes of lung cancer. You can usually get industrial injuries benefits for lung cancer if you also have asbestosis. If you have lung cancer but no signs of asbestosis, whether you can get industrial injuries benefits will depend on the type of work you have done as an employee and how long you did it for. You may also be able to sue an employer for civil compensation.
This refers to scarring and hardening of the lung caused by asbestos fibres. It is sometimes called interstitial pulmonary fibrosis. Asbestosis causes breathlessness, and usually progresses slowly. If you have asbestosis, you can usually get industrial injuries benefits. You may also be able to get civil compensation.
This is a type of cancer that begins in the pleura or in the lining of the abdominal cavity. The only known cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma can develop even in people who have had relatively little exposure to asbestos. If you have mesothelioma, you can usually get industrial injuries benefits. You may also be able to get civil compensation.
For information on the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of Asbestos disease, please click here.
A PDF of the excellent ‘The Mesothelioma Handbook’ (2016), published by the June Hancock Mesothelioma Research Fund in collaboration with Dr Helen Clayson, can be found here.