Increasing Awareness of the Dangers of Asbestos
GEMMA COLLINS DOYLE
Health and Safety Consultant at EazySAFE
Most people have heard that asbestos is dangerous, but what do they really know? Where does it come from, what exactly is it, how is it harmful and what can you do to increase awareness of the dangers of asbestos.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring substance and it includes six fibrous minerals: chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, anthophylite, tremolite and actinolite. Out of this group, chrysotile and amosite asbestos are the most commonly found. They are widely known by their colours, chrysotile (white asbestos), amosite (brown asbestos) and crocidolite (blue asbestos).
All asbestos originates from the crystallisation of molten rock, which when cooled produced various types of fibrous forms. It is normally found as thin veins, a few inches thick and between layers of the parent rock.
“Asbestos that is in good condition and undisturbed does not pose a danger to health, as the fibres will stay intact and not released into the air.”
Asbestos is microscopic in nature and probably one of the reasons why it can be so deadly to the human body. The fibres are extremely durable and resistant to fire and chemicals. For these very reasons, it was widely used in a number of areas, including roofing, ceiling tiles, floor tiles, cement compounds, textile products, car parts, boilers, insulation and fire resistant products. Due to its many uses, affordability it became commonly used through most of the 20th century.
When it became evident that asbestos had a detrimental effect on human health, it began to be phased out of use and it is now banned. The peak of asbestos use occurred from the late 1930s through the end of the 1970s.
How is asbestos hazardous to health?
Today, asbestos is classified as a known human carcinogen. Exposure to asbestos relates to the likelihood that the fibres which contain the material (ACM) can become released into the air and are then inhaled into the lungs. Asbestos fibres are microscopic (roughly .02 the diameter of a human hair), and therefore, are easily inhaled. Once inhaled, the fibres stick to the respiratory system, including the lining of the lungs and inner cavity tissue. As asbestos fibres are usually quite rigid, they become lodged in the soft internal tissue of the respiratory system and are not easily expelled or broken down by the body.
Evidence of the diseases will not occur immediately and can take from 15 – 60 years to develop. Asbestos that is in good condition and undisturbed does not pose a danger to health, as the fibres will stay intact and not released into the air.
Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to asbestos over the years, due to the extensive use of the material in so many products. It’s important to know, there is no safe type of asbestos, no safe level of exposure and nearly all those with history of exposure will run the risk of serious respiratory health complications.
None of the above paints a pretty picture, but on a positive note, at least now we are aware of the dangers and it is now prohibited to use, re-use, sell or supply asbestos or asbestos containing materials or products. In addition to this, your employees can be trained in asbestos awareness which will give them all the information they need to keep themselves safe.
There are three main major lung conditions that are connected to asbestos exposure. They are:
- Mesothelioma – a cancer of the cells that make up the lining around the outside of the lungs and inside the ribs (pleura) or around the abdominal organs. By the time is diagnosed, it is almost always fatal.
- Lung Cancer – a malignant tumour of the lungs’ air ways. The tumour grows through surrounding tissues, invading and usually obstructing air ways. Higher risk for people who have been exposed and smoke
- Asbestosis – fibres penetrating deep into the lung can cause scarring of the tissue, which restricts breathing, leading to decreased lung volume and increased resistance in the airways.
Symptoms may include coughing, chest pain and difficulty breathing.
Who is at risk?
It is a long list. There were hundreds of occupations that were affected by the exposure of asbestos. Asbestos was used in so many commercial products and industrial capacities and those working with the material in these industries are potentially at risk of harmful exposure. Industries in which asbestos use was particularly prevalent included shipbuilding, commercial product manufacturing, power plants, and construction.
Employees who were employed in these industries prior to 1980 are the most at risk.
- Computer / air conditioning installers
- Maintenance workers
- Boiler operators
- General repair persons
Protecting your employees
Thankfully asbestos is no longer used in commercial products, but unfortunately, due to its wide use, it will be around for a long time to come. If you work in a building that was built before the late 80’s, it is more than likely that asbestos was used in some form, somewhere. As mentioned above, asbestos is only dangerous if it is airborne.
The most important thing you can do, if you suspect you have asbestos on site, is to contact a specialist consultant to carry out a survey of your site. With this information and advice, you can then decide whether or not it will need to be removed. Be aware that there are strict regulations and guidelines on how this must be done and how the asbestos must be disposed of. Some asbestos if it is intact, will be safe to leave in place, it must however be marked as such and documented.
It is critical also that you ensure that your employees (if you suspect they could be exposed to asbestos in any way within their role) are trained in asbestos awareness, this can be done in a classroom setting or a convenient online asbestos awareness training course.
Remember, if you have any doubts at all about asbestos being in your workplace, make the wise and moral decision and get it checked out.