For centuries, asbestos was thought of as a “magic mineral”, because of its wealth of positive properties. It is strong, fire retardant, a good insulator and it is easy to mould into different shapes as required. However it is now known that asbestos also poses a number of health risks. Despite the fact that it is now known to be very dangerous, it still appears in millions of different places in the UK. Exposure can easily occur if this asbestos becomes damaged.
Asbestos exposure can lead to an irritation of the lungs known as asbestosis. Sufferers of asbestosis experience irritation and inflammation of the lining of the lungs and respiratory system. Most sufferers of asbestosis will also experience chronic shortness of breath. Asbestosis also increases the likelihood that the sufferer will develop some forms of lung cancer, including aggressive cancer known as melithemiosa.
There are six different types of asbestos worldwide, and all of these can be found in buildings across the country. Each different type of asbestos has its own risks and its own unique properties. This article aims to give a brief overview of each type of asbestos and some of the risks that are associated with each type.
(Chrysotile) White Asbestos
White asbestos is the most common type of asbestos. Around 95% of all of the asbestos which is mined worldwide is white asbestos. White asbestos is classified as a “serpentine” type of asbestos, because its curly fibres are reminiscent of snakes.
Chrysotile fibres are the most flexible of all asbestos fibres, which means that they can be spun and woven into almost any shape that is required. Despite its softness and flexibility, it is also the type of asbestos which is able to withstand the fiercest heat. Chrysotile is also able to absorb various organic and inorganic materials, and can therefore be used to strengthen substances, such as cement.
White asbestos can be found in thousands of different types of building material. The use of white asbestos was not banned in the UK until 1992, because it was originally not considered to be as much of a health threat as other types of asbestos. Before its ban, it was used in things like brake linings, boiler seals, gaskets, and hundreds of different types of tiles around the home. If is now known that exposure to chrysotile does put people at risk from a whole range of asbestos-related illnesses.
Crocidolite (Blue Asbestos)
Blue asbestos has needle-like fibres which are the strongest of any of the types of asbestos. It is highly resistant to acids, so it could be used in a number of different situations in which an area may be likely to be affected by acidic substances. Up until the 1960s, it was widely used in the United Kingdom in yarn or rope lagging, however the majority of the blue asbestos which was used in this country was used in sprayed insulation products.
Crocidolite is widely regarded as the most lethal type of asbestos. This is because the fibres are so thin and almost hair-like. They can become airborne very easily, and once they are airborne they can be breathed in very easily. Once this has occurred, it is almost impossible to get the fibres out of the lungs and digestive system, and they can then continue to cause irritation and inflammation. It only takes a small amount of fibres to put a person at risk. The import and use of blue asbestos was banned in the 1980s.
Grunerite (also known as brown asbestos or amosite) has harsh, spiky fibres. Most of the brown asbestos which is used worldwide was mined from South Africa. These fibres have a good tensile strength and they are resistant to heat.
In the United Kingdom, brown asbestos was widely used in the manufacture of insulation boards and ceiling tiles. It was also used in anti-condensation materials and materials which were required to be strong but maintain good acoustic qualities. People who are exposed to this type of asbestos are far more likely to develop cancer than with any other type of asbestos. It is widely linked with the development of lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma. The use and import of brown asbestos was banned in the 1980s in the United Kingdom.
Uncommon Asbestos Types
The following three types of asbestos are less commonly used, although they are also still thought to cause asbestos-related illnesses if they are handled in an unsafe manner.
Tremolite has only ever been mined in low levels in a few places around the world, and it is therefore uncommon in the United Kingdom. In most circumstances, when tremolite asbestos is found, it is considered to be a contaminant. For example, large numbers of people in Libby, Montana were put at risk after vermiculite, which was mined there, was found to contain tremolite asbestos.
In a few circumstances, tremolite was used in paints and sealants where a heat or fire retardant material was required.
- Anthrophyllite Asbestos
This type of asbestos is also sometimes referred to as “brown” asbestos. It is often discovered as a contaminant in mines, such as talc mines. The fibres of anthrophyllite are long and flexible. This type of asbestos has been used in asbestos cement, insulation, roofing materials and composite flooring. Whilst it has been directly linked to breathing problems amongst people who have inhaled large amounts of fibres, it has not been conclusively linked to mesothelioma.
Although it is considered to be the safest of all of the forms of asbestos, its use and import is still regulated in the United Kingdom.
Actinolite is an uncommon type of asbestos which is only found in a few places worldwide. Although it can be found in an “asbestos” form, actinolite can also be in a gemstone form as well. Because of its rarity, it has not been used in any of the same roles as the other types of asbestos. However, its use is regulated to prevent future issues from arising.