20th September, 2022

How To Identify Asbestos - Can You Find The Hidden Killer?

Asbestos is still a massive health and safety problem in the UK. It kills around 5000 people every year. To avoid releasing deadly asbestos fibres, you need to know where to find asbestos and how to identify it. But what does asbestos look like, and how can you know when you are at risk?

How To Identify Asbestos - Can You Find The Hidden Killer? header image

Asbestos is known as the hidden killer. It got this name because you won't know when it strikes. It's hidden in everyday building materials. Its fibres are so small that you can't see them. And it takes years - even decades - for illness to develop, meaning you don't know when you are exposed.

If you can't see it, how do you identify asbestos? How can you catch the hidden killer before it's too late?

Why do you need to identify asbestos?

Asbestos might be banned in the UK now, but it was used heavily in the past. It's still present in hundreds of thousands of buildings. You are likely to use, work and even live in buildings containing asbestos.

That doesn't automatically put you at risk, providing the asbestos materials are in good condition and not disturbed.

Asbestos diseases mainly affect construction workers, the people most likely to disturb asbestos.

But asbestos isn't just the biggest health hazard in the construction industry - it's the biggest workplace killer. Around 5000 people die each year in the UK due to past asbestos exposure.

When asbestos materials are disturbed, asbestos fibres are released. Inhaling these asbestos fibres can lead to lung cancer and mesothelioma, both painful, debilitating, and fatal diseases. To avoid releasing those deadly asbestos fibres (and a potentially slow and painful death), we need to know where to find asbestos, and how to identify it.

What does asbestos look like?

There are three types of asbestos, known as blue, brown and white. Or to give them their official names:

So, that's easy then. Blue asbestos must be blue, and brown asbestos must be brown. At least those two should be easy to spot, right?

Unfortunately, it's not that simple.

You can't actually see asbestos fibres - they are tiny. Asbestos fibres are so small and light that once in the air, they can remain floating for days. But you won't see them there. You can only identify these deadly fibres under a microscope.

asbestos fibres tiny

What about asbestos materials?

If you can't see asbestos fibres, what about identifying the materials they come from? Can you tell the difference between an asbestos-containing material and a safe building material?

I'm afraid not.

Asbestos can be found in hundreds of building products and materials - in cement products, paints, floor tiles, adhesive, artex, insulation, doors, partitions, cladding and many more.

asbestos AIB bulkhead
asbestos cement
asbestos floor tiles

It was used heavily in the UK before the full asbestos ban in 1999. It was very popular in the 50s - 70s and was used in a wide variety of building products. Virtually any building product you can think of could contain asbestos.

But cement that contains asbestos just looks like cement. Pipe lagging that contains asbestos just looks like insulation. Partitions containing asbestos just look like... well, you get it.

What does asbestos smell like?

If you can't see asbestos, can you smell it? Many harmful substances have a certain smell or odour to help you know when they are about. For example, if you have a gas leak, you can't see it - but you can smell it.

Again, asbestos lets us down here. You can't detect it by its smell, because it doesn't have one.

If you walk into a building full of asbestos materials, from the walls to the roof to the fixtures and fittings, you won't smell it. If you drill into asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) and release the deadly fibres (please don't do this), the dust will smell like any other dust.

asbestos dust

How can you identify asbestos?

If you can't see asbestos, and you can't smell it, how do you identify when asbestos is around? How do you know when your health - and future - are at risk?

The only way to know for sure is with an asbestos survey.

An asbestos survey is a survey carried out by an asbestos expert. Someone who is trained in spotting asbestos. But even they can't be sure if a material contains asbestos, just which ones are likely to. So they will take samples to be tested.

An asbestos surveyor will gather information about the building or structure, including the date it was built and the dates of work carried out. This will give them a good indication of the materials that are likely to have been used during construction work. They will then survey the building or structure to identify exactly where asbestos can be found.

Asbestos surveys are a legal requirement, under the Control of Asbestos Regulations.

To manage the risk from ACMs, the duty holder will need to:

  • keep and maintain an up-to-date record of the location, condition, maintenance and removal of all ACMs on the premises;

The extent of the survey will depend on the type of survey needed. There are two types of asbestos survey:

The management asbestos survey is required for non-domestic buildings under normal occupation. This would include offices, schools, factories, hospitals etc. This would also include shared parts of domestic buildings. This type of survey will help you comply with the need to manage asbestos. To monitor the condition of materials, know what action is needed (if any), create the asbestos management plan, and minimise the risks.

The management survey is used to identify asbestos materials that may be a risk during the use of the building. It's mostly a visual inspection, with some minor sampling. It can involve some presumptions and guesswork by the asbestos surveyor.

artex ceiling coating

The refurbishment and demolition survey is a much more intrusive survey. It is required before construction work is carried out. The highest risk group when it comes to asbestos is construction. It's estimated that over 40 construction workers die each week from past asbestos exposure. Plumbers and electricians are among those at high risk, as they often disturb building materials.

Workers who disturb the fabric of buildings during maintenance, refurbishment, repair, installation and related activities may be exposed to asbestos every time they unknowingly work on ACMs or carry out work without taking the correct precautions.

The refurbishment and demolition survey is used to identify all asbestos-containing materials that may be disturbed during the planned construction work. This is a much more intrusive survey. It will aim to uncover not just those materials on the surface, but also hidden asbestos within the fabric of the building.

Find out more about the two types of asbestos surveys, and when you need them.

You can't see asbestos. And, you can't smell it. Asbestos surveys are the only way to identify asbestos materials. They are also a legal requirement.

Download the free asbestos toolbox talk as a reminder of the dangers of asbestos, and the actions you can take to stay safe.

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This article was written by Emma at HASpod. Emma has over 10 years experience in health and safety and BSc (Hons) Construction Management. She is NEBOSH qualified and Tech IOSH.

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