Every breath you take...

Asbestos remains a real and present danger for thousands of builders in the UK but with the
proper information and care, the hidden killer can be deprived of victims.

Asbestos might be a building material of the past but it isn’t going away anytime soon - there’s
a lot of the material still out there, lurking in older buildings just waiting for the unwary.

The material found favour because of its ability to withstand heat and fire, making it ideal - or so it seemed - for fire-proofing and insulation. It was used for lagging pipes, for making insulation and in roofing boards (such as corrugated garage roofs), for fibrous infilling insulation material, and it was also used in cements, coatings, tiles and other materials.

There was just one slight snag to this “wonder” material: it is lethal.

This hidden killer, as the Health & Safety Executive (HSE ) calls it in its awareness campaign, is by no means a fast killer. The time between exposure and the onset of asbestos-related disease can be anywhere ranging from 15 to 60 years.

Some 4,000 people die every year as a result of asbestos. There are four main maladies associated with the material.

Mesothelioma is a form of cancer directly related to the inhalation of asbestos particles, which affects the inner lining of the lungs - and it is always fatal.

Then there is the more typical forms of lung cancer, which are nearly always fatal, asbestosis (not always fatal but can be very debilitating) and diffuse pleural thickening, which is not fatal.

“Asbestos fibres are present in the environment in Great Britain so people are exposed to very low levels of fibres. However, a key factor in the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease is the total number of fibres breathed in. Working on or near damaged asbestoscontaining materials or breathing in high levels of asbestos fibres, which may be many hundreds of times that of environmental levels, can increase your chances of getting an asbestos-related disease,” the HSE said.

“Asbestos-related diseases won’t affect immediately but later on in life, so there is a need for you to protect yourself now to prevent you contracting an asbestosrelated disease in the future. It is also important to remember that people who smoke and are also exposed to asbestos fibres are at a much greater risk of developing lung cancer.”

Any building built before 2000 has a strong likelihood of containing asbestos in some form or other, so care needs to be taken when assessing and planning work.

Buildings where the material might be lurking include factories, offices, schools, hospitals and many a home.

Indeed, according to the British Lung Foundation (BLF), nearly 14 million homes were built in the era when asbestos was widely used. While the material may not be present in every one of those properties, it nevertheless indicates the extent to which material lingers as a potential hazard to human health.

The issue is pertinent for a wide range of people, from home DIYers to a range of trasdespeople who carry out work in homes - plumbers, electricians, joiners etc - and that’s before we begin to consider those who work in nondomestic properties.

“Many people think asbestos is a thing of the past but this hidden killer is still lurking in many British homes,” said Dame Helena Shovelton, chief executive of the BLF.

“Before you take a sledgehammer to the wall, sand your artex ceiling or change your boiler, a quick visit to our website will help make sure you’re not exposing yourself to danger.”

The HSE ’s website is a source of comprehensive information regarding the risks, regulations and safe practices required in working with, or where there is a risk of there being, asbestos materials. It
continues to run its Asbestos: the Hidden Killer campaign, which has been raising awareness of the issue for the past two years.

Dealing with the material requires specialist skills to ensure that workers, residents and the general environment doesn’t become contaminated with the fibres. Often, when the whereabouts of asbestos is known, it may be left in place as not disturbing undamaged asbestos products may be deemed the
safest option, but when it is to be removed it is essential that the material is removed and disposed
of safely - and this requires specialist licensed operators.

The material is classed as a category 1 carcinogen. When damaged, it releases fine dust that is easily breathed in and becomes lodged in the lungs. The fibrous dust is so small that standard dust masks are no defence.

Handled correctly, there is little or no problem with asbestos. The real killer is ignorance - and that’s why understanding the material and the proper procedures for dealing with it are essential.

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