10th April, 2018
Unless you have been living down an asbestos mine for the last 30+ years, you have probably heard of the dangers of asbestos.
If you work in construction, then it's pretty much the law for you to know about asbestos and its risks.
But, if everyone knows asbestos is bad news, then why was it used so much in UK construction? And why wasn't it banned from the beginning?
To understand, let's start at the end and work our way backwards (hindsight is a wonderful thing!).
It might surprise you to know what asbestos was only fully banned in the UK construction industry in 1999.
Blue (crocidolite) and brown (amosite) asbestos were banned in 1985.
White (chrysotile) asbestos was not included in this initial ban.
Manufacture and supply of all asbestos products were banned by the end of 1999.
Sticking with what we know today, asbestos is bad for the human body.
If you inhale asbestos fibres, they can embed themselves in your lungs and cause all sorts of problems (known as asbestos related diseases).
Oh, and if that's not bad enough, asbestos related diseases are usually fatal.
So why was asbestos used in the first place, and what happened to get it banned?
Let's go back in time, to before the ban.
At the end of the 1800's, asbestos became popular due to the industrial revolution and a boom in industry.
Asbestos was used, not just a little bit. It was a hugely popular building material.
It was actually a brilliant building material because it was:
With those credentials, why wouldn't you use it? And we did use it... a lot. At it's peak, asbestos was used in over 3000 products, from asbestos cement and insulation, to mattresses and textured coatings.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring material found throughout the world. At its peak use in the 60's and 70's, we were importing over 170,000 tonnes of asbestos to the UK a year!
But people were getting ill, and dying, from asbestos exposure.
Those tiny asbestos fibres that are so good for construction, are deadly for the human body.
It was fairly well known that asbestos was a major health risk, even the Romans (one of the early adopters of Asbestos) noted a 'sickness of the lungs'.
In the 1920's and 1930's concern was growing, but so was the use of asbestos.
In the 1920's the UK imported around 21 thousand tonnes per year, by 1950 we were importing over 100 thousand tonnes a year, which grew to 170 thousand tonnes annually in the 60's.
Because asbestos-related illnesses take time to develop, symptoms were showing in those exposed decades earlier. By the 70's and 80's pressure was mounting for a ban.
All asbestos kills: blue, brown and white. It should be remembered also that it is a long time since the first warnings of the dangers of asbestos were given to the Government. The Home Office first received official warning of the dangers 77 years ago.
Three types of asbestos were commonly used in UK construction - blue (crocidolite), brown (amosite) and white (chrysotile). Initially, blue and brown asbestos was banned in 1985. By 1999 all asbestos (inlcuding white) was banned from use in the UK.
Even today, over 5000 people die each year because of asbestos exposure.
To put that into context, that's double the annual fatalities as a result of road traffic accidents.
For something that was banned nearly 20 years ago, why are people still dying?
Inhalation of asbestos fibres can cause cancers such as mesothelioma and lung cancer, and other serious lung diseases such as asbestosis and pleural thickening.
Do some cowboy construction companies still use it? Is there an asbestos black market in the UK?
Actually, the main reason why is because asbestos was used so much before the ban, that it is present in hundreds of thousands of buildings in the UK.
While the ban prevented asbestos materials being used in construction going forward, it did not ban asbestos materials already in use.
Existing asbestos materials can stay in use until they reach the end of their service life. Some asbestos materials are used right down to the building structure, so the only way they can be removed will be by demolishing the building itself.
Asbestos containing materials can be found throughout buildings in the UK.
Even though asbestos materials cannot be used in construction projects today, most construction workers still need to be aware of asbestos and asbestos is still an important topic.
Even though it is banned, you are still likely to find asbestos if you work in buildings or structures built before 2000.