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