This week the British Lung Foundation is launching a new campaign "Take 5 and Stay Alive" to promote awareness of the dangers of asbestos, particularly among tradespeople who may be dealing with it every day.
According to official statistics, on average six electricians, four plumbers and eight joiners in UK die from asbestos exposure every week - making it the single greatest cause of work-related deaths. Though the use of the material was banned in 2000, any building made before then may contain it as it was commonly used as insulation. While undisturbed asbestos is relatively harmless, when disturbed the fibres can become airborne. When inhaled, asbestos fibres can cause a range of illnesses - including the terminal chest cancer mesothelioma. The tiny invisible particles stick to clothes, meaning that as well as risking their own lives, workers can be unknowingly putting their family members, colleagues and friends at risk.
The "Take 5 and Stay Alive" campaign aims to ensure tradespeople have the knowledge to identify asbestos and what type it is, with them then being able to assess correctly whether they have the right training and equipment to deal with it safely.
British Lung Foundation chief executive Dr Penny Woods said:
"Twice as many people die from asbestos-related illnesses than on the roads each year in Britain. It's the biggest work-related killer, and the numbers of deaths associated with it are rising each year. Sole traders and people working for small companies are often under particular pressure to take jobs and deliver quickly, and this can sometimes put them at particular risk of asbestos exposure.
"But it's not just tradespeople putting their own lives at risk. If asbestos is disturbed the particles can affect others too, and we know several women who have died after years of washing their husbands' contaminated overalls.
"Our Take 5 and Stay Alive campaign aims to give tradespeople the tools to act responsibly. We want to ensure they can identify asbestos wherever and in whatever form it might be present, and know how to deal with it safely. Our message is simple - taking just five minutes to assess the situation could save your life, and keep your family, friends, clients and business safe from exposure to potentially fatal asbestos dust."
More information on Take 5 and Stay Alive can be found on their website, which contains plenty of information about the different types of asbestos, where it can be found and the illnesses it can cause.
In addition to this campaign, former electrician Alan North has uploaded a video to YouTube describing his experiences after he was diagnosed with mesothelioma earlier this year. While this is unaffiliated with the BLF's work, it shares the same message about the dangers of mishandling asbestos. You can view the video HERE.
During your construction course you will learn to use many different materials as you prepare for your future career. As you can expect it is therefore important to know of any health and safety requirements when using these materials. Before 1972 the most common element used to insulate buildings was asbestos. Only much later did we find out that breathing this in could result in lung restrictive illnesses and even death.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring material that was commonly used in buildings for insulation, including schools, offices and homes. Asbestos fibres are exceptionally strong and resistant to heat. It is usually found in ceiling tiles, flooring and pipes.
Asbestos only becomes a danger when it is disturbed, causing the fibres to become airborne. This is commonly referred to as friable asbestos (while intact asbestos is non-friable), and lungs are susceptible to breathing in the airborne fibres. Research has yet to determine a safe level of exposure, but one thing is for certain - the more prolonged the exposure, the greater the risk becomes for developing an asbestos related disease.
Asbestos related diseases
There are three diseases that are triggered by inhaling asbestos fibres: Asbestosis, Mesothelioma and Lung Cancer. Asbestosis is caused when the fibres are inhaled and become trapped in the lungs. In response, the body tries to dissolve the fibres by producing an acid. While not destroying the fibres, the acid serves to scar the lung tissue. Eventually the scarring can become so severe that the lungs become unable to function. The time from exposure to the manifestation of asbestosis in most patients is between 25 to 40 years.
Mesothelioma is a cancer of the outside tissue of the lungs. This cancer is solely linked to asbestos. The time from exposure to manifestation is from 15 to 35 years. Lung cancer can also be caused by asbestos, however the chances of development are greatly increased with smoking. The exposure to manifestation period is again around 15 to 35 years.
The risk of being exposed to asbestos is increased by the presence of construction. Work on ceilings and flooring can cause the asbestos to become friable. This is why non-friable asbestos is often recommended to be left intact and not removed. Asbestos does not just chip away or decompose; it must be physically disturbed to pose a threat to human health.
Asbestos is required to be removed, either before or during a construction project, or due to an accidental disturbance. Health & Safety Regulations require that certain precautions and procedures take place. These regulations aim to ensure that the appropriate steps are taken during an abatement procedure, and all health and safety precautions are taken.
So the answer to the question at the start of this post - how dangerous is asbestos? Very dangerous!
- Richard James