1. What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral whose fibres can be separated into thin, durable threads. It has been widely used in many industries because the fibres are excellent insulators (resistant to heat, fire and chemicals, and do not conduct electricity). It is often used to reinforce cement and other materials.
It is however a particularly dangerous substance (classified as a category 1A carcinogen in Regulation (EC) No 1272/2008
) on the classification, packaging and labelling of chemicals). If products containing asbestos are disturbed, tiny fibres can be inhaled, leading over time to diseases such as asbestosis, mesothelioma, and other forms of cancer.
2. What types are there?
There are several types of asbestos:
- amosite (‘brown’ asbestos);
- chrysotile (‘white’ asbestos);
- crocidolite (‘blue’ asbestos);
Crocidolite and amosite are the two most dangerous forms of asbestos — they pose the greatest risks to health if their fibres are inhaled. Crocidolite has been phased out since the 1970s. However, much remains in older structures.
Remember: asbestos causes no harm to anyone if it is left undisturbed. It is only dangerous if it is cut, drilled or damaged in some way.
3. Where might it be encountered?
Asbestos is still found in some buildings as insulation but was also used in brake linings and for lagging pipes and boilers (e.g. onboard vessels). It may still be present in some older buildings, but is being removed as they are refurbished. Generally, use of asbestos is now very minimal, as less hazardous alternatives become available. It may still be present in some older buildings where you work or which you visit — such as distilleries — and on board some vessels, particularly from non-EU countries.
4. What damage can it cause?
Asbestos is only dangerous if it is fragmented and the fibres become airborne — as asbestos dust. If these fibres are inhaled they can cause serious diseases. However, these are very rare amongst people who are not exposed to high amounts of asbestos. They are mainly developed by people who work, or used to work, regularly with asbestos.
- Asbestosis is an irreversible scarring of the lung which leads to severe breathing difficulties. It can continue to develop even after exposure to asbestos has ceased
- Lung cancer. People who work regularly with asbestos run a higher risk of developing lung cancer. See also Carcinogens.
- Mesothelioma is an incurable cancer of the inner lining of the chest or abdominal wall. Its incidence amongst the general population is very low, but asbestos workers have a higher chance of developing it.
Diseases linked with asbestos take a long time to develop. Symptoms of asbestosis can take 10 to 20 years to appear and signs of asbestos-linked cancers up to 40 years.
5. Are all asbestos fibres dangerous?
It depends. The critical factor is the size of the fibres, which have to be small enough to be inhaled but also too large to be exhaled. This is why crocidolite and amosite fibres are generally the most dangerous. Dangerous fibres are defined in Directive 2009/148/EC
, however, it is safer to assume that all asbestos fibres are dangerous! But they are only dangerous if you inhale them — there is no evidence of disease from water supplies contaminated by asbestos.
6. Legislation regarding asbestos
Directive 1999/77/EC bans all uses of asbestos from 1 January 2005. In addition, Directive 2003/18/EC bans extraction of asbestos and the manufacture and processing of asbestos products.
However, the foremost problem is exposure to asbestos in the course of removal, demolition, servicing and maintenance activities.
of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 November 2009 on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to asbestos at work, strictly controls exposure to asbestos of all types in all forms.
Under article 8 Employers shall ensure that no worker is exposed to an airborne concentration of asbestos in excess of 0,1 fibres per cm3
as an eight-hour time-weighted average (TWA). Any work that directly involves asbestos must be notified to the responsible national authority.
You should also check your own National Legislation.
7. What can be done to reduce the risks?
If you have to work in any areas where you suspect that asbestos dust might be present you must:
- take care not to disturb the asbestos;
- work for only short periods at a time; and
- wear appropriate respiratory protection.
If it is necessary to move asbestos, this must be done by a licensed contractor. On no account should you attempt to remove asbestos yourself. You must place any clothing, etc. known, or thought, to be contaminated with asbestos dust in a labelled plastic bag after use. Your administration should make arrangements with a laundry for it to be cleaned — only specialist laundries are able to clean clothing contaminated by asbestos.
Remember: it is always better to avoid the risks altogether, so if you know asbestos is present — keep out.
8. What if I think I have been exposed to asbestos?
You should check your own national procedures. However, it is recommended that an asbestos contractor should test the atmosphere in the area suspected of being contaminated. If there are more than 0.1 respirable fibres per millilitre of air, averaged over any continuous four-hour period (i.e. half the maximum level allowed under the legislation), urgent action is needed. You should check your own local guidelines for reporting exposure and any follow-up action — which may include keeping records for extended periods (up to 40 years) and regular medicals every two years.