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The Dangers of Dealing with Asbestos

Essentially a fibrous mesh of silicate minerals, asbestos has been present in construction since the early 19th century, and mining of asbestos materials stretches back more than 4,000 years. These days, the dangers of asbestos are widely known, with lengthy exposure to the hazardous fibres posing a serious threat to health. However, this wasn’t always the case.

Once prized for its soundproofing and heat insulation properties, asbestos was a common material present in all homes and commercial buildings until the health risk it posed was discovered, with the first recorded incident of asbestosis occurring in the UK in 1924.

Although it’s now never used in new builds and modern construction work (blue and brown asbestos was banned in 1985, and use of white asbestos in 1999), asbestos is still prevalent in many old houses and office buildings. From ceiling and wall linings, to gutters, roof lining, floor tiles and bath panels, extra care should be taken when performing destructive work in any structure built before tighter regulations on the use of asbestos were introduced in the mid-1980s.

Contrary to popular belief, asbestos is not hazardous in stasis. The danger only really arises when materials containing asbestos are broken up or damaged in any way, as this is when the microscopic fibres that have been proven to cause respiratory illnesses, such as lung cancer, become airborne.

Removal and handling of asbestos is governed by the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006, and can only be performed by a licenced waste carrier. These regulations also stipulate that only specially adapted vehicles and approved routes should be used to carry asbestos-containing materials to landfill. This means that it is vitally important to call on professional experts whenever you require safe asbestos removal and disposal. A recent update of the standard in 2012 also stated that owners of commercial buildings in which asbestos was a known presence had a duty of care to its inhabitants, ensuring that degradation of the material doesn’t occur and organising for professional removal where necessary.

As a general rule, asbestos cannot be recycled or reused in the majority of situations, although there have recently been developments in a method whereby the materials are transformed into silicate glass – a specialised and complex process that must be carried out by only the highest trained professionals.

Despite its hazardous reputation, the benefits that asbestos brought to construction in terms of its soundproofing and heat insulating properties were huge, meaning that safe alternatives had to be found. For example, fibreglass is now the most popular insulation tool in the industry, despite initial concerns over a health risk it might pose due to the similarities in its fibrous structure to that of asbestos. However, it was removed from the list of carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2001, and is used widely throughout the cavity wall and loft insulation industry.

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