This week is global asbestos awareness week. This is an event that takes place every year to raise awareness about the dangers of asbestos exposure. The focus of this year’s event is banning the mining, manufacturing and use of asbestos, preventing asbestos exposure, increasing compliance and enforcement of existing laws and regulation and strengthening international partnerships to protect public health.
Although many efforts have been made to eliminate asbestos, the material still poses a risk as it can be present in buildings built before asbestos was banned and it is still used in other countries around the world.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is fibrous mineral which was first mined in South Africa. It is known for its brilliant insulation properties and is resistant to heat, electricity and sound. The use of asbestos dramatically increased during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as it is a cheap and convenient component. It was the material of choice in a variety of products. Some examples include cement and pipe and boiler insulation.
Asbestos is now banned in the UK, but it remains present in many buildings so people continue to be at risk of being exposed to its harmful fibres.
Why is it dangerous?
Asbestos is a known carcinogen and breathing in fibres can cause people to develop a number of asbestos related conditions. Issues arise when materials that contain asbestos are disturbed or damaged which causes these fibres to be released into the air.
Asbestos fibres are small and when they are breathed in or swallowed, they can make their way into the lungs or digestive tract. The body cannot break down or remove the asbestos fibres so they remain in place for many years and can lead to an asbestos related disease.
It is important to note that not everyone who is exposed to asbestos will go on to develop an asbestos related condition.
What can it cause?
There are four main diseases and conditions that are attributed to asbestos exposure, they are:
Mesothelioma is a cancer which mainly affects the lining of the lungs, although it can also affect the lining of the stomach, heart of testicles. It can only be related to asbestos exposure. There is currently no known cure for mesothelioma, but there have been recent breakthroughs in treatment options.
Asbestos related lung cancer
Asbestos related lung cancer is any other cancer of the lungs other than mesothelioma, attributed to asbestos. The danger of contracting lung cancer from exposure to asbestos is greatly increased for those that also smoke.
Asbestosis is a serious condition of the lung that normally occurs after heavy exposure to asbestos over many years.
Pleural thickening is when the lining of the lung (pleura) thickens and swells. If this gets worse, the lung itself can be squeezed, and this can cause shortness of breath and discomfort in the chest.
Who is at risk of an asbestos related disease?
Everyone is exposed to asbestos at some point during their life as low levels of asbestos are present in the air, water and soil, however most people do not become ill from their exposure.
People who become ill from asbestos are usually those exposed to it on a regular basis. Many who suffer from asbestos related illnesses have previously been employed in a trade where asbestos was used. Most commonly, builders, carpenters and plumbers who may have been using asbestos board, rope and insulation in the course of their working lives.
Alternatively, those who suffer from asbestos related illnesses may have worked in an environment where asbestos was present such as factories, building sites and ships where asbestos was used in and around the working environment. Less common environments containing asbestos materials include schools, hospitals and farms.
It is also possible that the asbestos fibres could be transferred from one person who has had high levels of exposure to another. A common example is a wife washing her husband’s overalls which have been contaminated with asbestos.
What can we do?
Asbestos has been banned in the UK therefore no new asbestos should be being used within the country, however a lot of buildings, particularly public buildings still contain asbestos. It is therefore important to remain vigilant and ensure that the correct precautions are taken when dealing with the removal of asbestos.
It is important to note that this UK position is not the same for the rest of the world with asbestos still being mined and used in construction. Asbestos remains legal in nearly 70% of the countries of the world, including the USA.