Most people in the construction industry will have heard not only of asbestos but be aware of the dangers it can pose. Widely used as a fire-retardant building material from the 1940s right through to the 1980s, the material can be found in every type of building. Domestic properties, public buildings (including schools and hospitals), factories and office blocks all incorporated the material.

Buildings constructed prior to 2000 in the UK can contain asbestos and although where the material is intact and well maintained its dangers are minimal, removal of the asbestos is likely to create serious risks to health. Figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) suggest an average of twenty construction workers (or former workers) die from asbestos related diseases each week.

What is Asbestos and What Materials Incorporate It?

Asbestos is a fibrous material which has been used in cement, coating materials (usually walls or ceilings), and insulation boards as well as in wall cavities as a loose material or in board form.

Undisturbed, asbestos is not in itself dangerous but once damaged the fibres can be released into the air. The airborne fibres can then be inhaled and exposure to asbestos can cause serious illnesses. While there is widespread background asbestos in the environment the low levels of inhalation this involves are not considered dangerous. Where higher levels of asbestos are found in the atmosphere, levels likely to be experienced by construction workers in particular, are however extremely dangerous; the conditions that can result from exposure to higher levels of asbestos inhalation are often fatal.

Mesothelioma

This is a type of cancer that develops in the lining of the lungs (the mesothelium). This lining covers most of our internal organs and the associated cancer can also develop in the abdomen. Although rare, asbestos related cases of the disease are on the increase, survival rates vary and early diagnosis is considered key to successful treatment

Lung Cancer

Asbestos is one of many potential causes of this virulent form of cancer. Asbestos fibres entering the lungs can result in this type of cancer and again, as with the above, early diagnosis and treatment is important in managing the disease

Asbestosis

This is a long-term condition resulting from exposure or inhalation of the material. The condition is the result of scaring on the lungs but it is a relatively rare illness. Slow to develop, the condition often begins to show symptoms decades after exposure and is a highly debilitating illness.

Diffuse Plural Thickening

This is the least aggressive asbestos related condition, caused by a thickening of the ‘pleura’. This is the membrane on the lungs and the chest cavity and the thickening of the membrane which can be caused by exposure to asbestos can result in shortness of breath and tightness in the chest. Once the condition is fully developed it does not usually worsen but it is not treatable. However, the long term outlook for those with the condition is good.

Asbestos Training and Identification

Most asbestos related diseases can take many years to develop and symptoms are not always obvious in the early stages. The recent rise in cases of mesothelium and lung cancer related to asbestos is seen in the older generation who have worked with asbestos in the past. For modern construction workers learning how to work safely with asbestos is therefore essential. to minimise the risks of developing asbestos related conditions in the future. Although asbestos is no longer used in modern buildings it is commonly found in existing structures and training in identifying Asbestos, removing it safely and legislation relating to disposal is crucial.

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