Dangerous Materials: Why Is Asbestos So Hard To Spot?

asbestos and ppe

Posted on 29th Mar, 2018 | By Lorretta Tatham

Asbestos is responsible for the deaths of 20 tradesmen a week, according to the HSE. If you’re not familiar with asbestos, essentially it’s the collective name for a naturally occurring group of minerals that was widely used in the construction sector before it was banned in 1999. Asbestos fibres are long, tough and fireproof. While this makes them incredibly useful from a construction point of view, it also makes them particularly threatening to human health.

If asbestos fibres are inhaled, the human body is unable to break them down, which can lead to deadly diseases like asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. Obviously, this all makes it incredibly important to spot asbestos early on, but even this can present problems.

Here’s Why Asbestos Is So Hard To Detect

In its regular form, asbestos comes in blue, brown and white varieties, and back when it was freely used in construction, it was often mixed with other materials like cement. It has no distinctive visual characteristics, so it’s difficult to conclusively determine whether a material contains asbestos from visual inspection. It’s true that the packaging of some asbestos products contain identification marks – but on the other hand, many others don’t, and unless the original packaging is close to hand it’s a moot point regardless.

wall of asbestos and plasterboard

As well as having no distinctive visual characteristics, it has no smell either, and there’s no immediate consequence to the act of inhaling it. Only much later do the symptoms of diseases like asbestosis start to become apparent, and by that stage it’s often too late to do anything about them.

Even the location of asbestos can be difficult to predict. It’s been used in all sorts of buildings, both private and public, and according to some experts, some construction workers had a habit of completing the final stages of jobs with whatever materials they had lying around, leading to asbestos being found in the most unlikely of places. This is complicated by the fact that in 1984, non-asbestos cement sheets were introduced to the UK construction market. These sheets closely resemble the ones containing asbestos, and since the latter were cheaper anyway they continued to be used all the way up until the ban in 1999.

How To Look For Asbestos

Although around 50% of British homes are estimated to contain some form of asbestos, the good news is that these fibres aren’t dangerous when they’re inert. It’s only when they become disturbed and therefore airborne that they become a threat to human health. To avoid this, whenever you’re thinking of undertaking any sort of building work on your property (including extensions) you should always have an expert check conducted for asbestos. We’d strongly advise against trying to conduct this sort of check yourself. Best case scenario, you might not realise what you’ve found even if you do stumble across it, and in the worst case you could actually inhale some of those deadly fibres.

asbestos fibres

Instead, suspected asbestos fibres should only be investigated by a PASMA trained specialist. It’s worth noting that due to the combination of factors we mentioned above, even experts can have difficulty conclusively identifying unknown materials as asbestos – a scenario which usually entails sending the material in question to a specialist lab, so it can be definitively identified.

What you can do, though, is track down any documentation or plans for your building. If you know for a fact that it was built after 2000, then you can already rest easy, safe in the knowledge that asbestos almost certainly won’t have been used in its construction. (That doesn’t mean you should skip out on the specialist checks, by the way, but just not worry too much about what they might find!)

Here at Browns Safety, we offer our own comprehensive UKATA Asbestos Training Awareness course, delivered by our very own experts. It’s targeted at anyone whose work has the potential to expose them to asbestos, and trains them in specific risks and general procedures to be followed. To book your place, simply click on the link above, or give us a call on 01282 615517.

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