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All about asbestos

Anyone who works in or on buildings, such as those involved in maintenance, refurbishment and demolition, could be exposed to asbestos.

You may know it can harm people, but do you know why and where it can be found? And do you know how to manage it effectively? Read our guidance aimed at business owners, managers, workers and health and safety professionals.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is the name for a group of naturally occurring minerals used in many materials and products. It has been used – and still is used in some countries – to strengthen materials and provide fire and chemical resistance. In the production process, asbestos is usually mixed with other substances to create different asbestos-containing materials (ACMs), but it is also used as a stand-alone material.  

Occupational exposure to asbestos occurs when a worker breathes in the fibres in a working environment. The fibres can become stuck in the lungs. Over time, this can cause serious illnesses, including fatal cancers.  

Approximately 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos in the workplace, according to estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO). Figures suggest that 233,000 occupational cancer deaths are caused by asbestos every year.   

Even if a country has banned its use, thousands of tonnes of asbestos can still be found in domestic and commercial buildings, industrial plants and equipment.  

Asbestos has been mined in many countries over time. Today, the main producers are Russia, China, Kazakhstan, and India. 

Asbestos use became prevalent during the industrial revolution. It was cheap and helped to create useful products when combined with other substances and materials. Asbestos is extremely durable. Almost all that was mined and imported still exists either in buildings, industrial plants or buried underground in licensed waste sites. 

Types of asbestos

The common ones used were:

  • chrysotile (white asbestos)
  • amosite (brown asbestos)
  • crocidolite (blue asbestos).

Anthophyllite, actinolite and tremolite asbestos were less commonly used.  

Asbestos fibres are microscopic, a thousandth of the diameter of human hair. In fact, it is impossible to see an individual asbestos fibre without a microscope, but you can see dust that contain fibres when ACMs are damaged.  

The UK banned importation and use of amosite and crocidolite in 1985. Actinolite, anthophyllite and tremolite were banned in 1992 and chrysotile in 1999.

The European Union banned all remaining uses of chrysotile in 2005.

Chrysotile, a type of asbestos

Where asbestos can be found

In addition to the places mentioned above, asbestos can be found in materials such as those listed below.

  • Asbestos millboard and papers – these have been used in specialist applications such as insulating electrical equipment and can contain high levels of asbestos.
  • Asbestos yarns – used for fire protective clothing, gloves and fire blankets, ropes, gaskets and packing materials. Cloth containing asbestos has also been used in ceramic fuse holders behind fuse wires. 
  • Fibre cement – widespread use for roofing, wall cladding, soffit boards, boiler flues, gutters, pipes, tanks and bath panels. Fire bricks, lintels and surrounds were also made from asbestos cement.
  • Floor tiles, gaskets, bitumen, felts – where floor tiles have been bonded to the floor using bitumen there is often a residue of fibres left in the bitumen when the tiles are removed.
  • Insulating boards – these were produced to provide low-density, low-cost, fire-resistant insultation in many buildings. Asbestos can be found in ceiling tiles, partition walls, firebreaks, soffit boards and heater cupboards.
  • Laggings – used to prevent heat loss or heat transfer to surrounding areas. Found on boilers, pipes and other plant items. 
  • Mastics, sealants, putties and adhesives – used in boiler systems to attach insulation or fill gaps.
  • Reinforced plastics – including reinforced handles, automobile parts, housing for electronic equipment and toilet cisterns.
  • Spray coatings – used for fire protection on structural steel beams, trusses and girders, but also to prevent condensation inside buildings and for acoustic control. The coating comprised a thin layer of cement and fibre mixture applied by high-pressure spray.
  • Textured coatings and paints – often used to decorate walls and ceilings.

Graphic titled 'How small is asbestos?'