What is asbestos?

This is a question we get asked a lot. But, for the purposes of this blog, we think it is worth exploring what asbestos isn’t.

Firstly, there is a big misconception that asbestos is man-made, but that’s not the case.

The shortest and easiest way to describe asbestos is that it is a mineral which is formed within the veins of a rock. It is a naturally occurring silicate mineral which is fibrous in structure. It doesn’t grow, it doesn’t form, and it doesn’t appear.

Asbestos is also naturally an excellent electrical insulator and highly heat-resistant so, for many years, it was used as a building material. It was mined out of the ground, milled down and the raw fibres used.

Where is it found?

Asbestos was mined mainly in Russia, China, Brazil, Kazakhstan, India, Canada and South Africa, although each country mines different types of asbestos due to the way the minerals are formed in the conditions unique to those countries. For example, Canada mined Chrysotile, which is a white asbestos.

Types of asbestos

There are six types of asbestos and of those six, three are the most commercially used in the UK. They are known as the big three. They are:

  1. Chrysotile – a white asbestos that was massively used in the UK and used in around 92% of all products containing asbestos.
  2. Amosite – the second largest type of asbestos, which is also known as brown asbestos.
  3. Crocidolite – also known as blue asbestos, Crocidolite can be found in cement sheets or insulating boards.

There are also the lesser three – Anthophyllite, Tremolite and Actinolite – which were all mined but not commercially sought after. If miners came across the lesser asbestos types, they would still collect it which is why we still see traces of it in products today.

Why does it present problems now?

Asbestos is still present in some older buildings in the UK. For example, it was once common for garage roofs to be made using 15% Chrysotile and Portland cement to make the roof sheets. It was also commonly used in large institutional buildings, such as schools, hospitals and prisons.

Exposure to asbestos has been linked to Mesothelioma, a type of cancer that develops on a thin layer of tissue that covers internal organs known as the mesothelium. More than 80% of mesothelioma cases are caused by exposure to asbestos with the greater the exposure, the greater the risk.

Historically, the UK was the biggest user of brown asbestos in the world and it was imported in especially. Studies have since shown that the UK also has the highest number of Mesothelioma deaths.

There is a misconception that white asbestos is good, and others are bad, but this is not the case. Within the industry they are all treated the same, under the same control and level that is set.

If you would like further information or advice on asbestos and how it can be removed safely, contact the team on 0844 818 0895 or email [email protected].

Neil Munro

I work in a dual role at Acorn Analytical Services focused primarily on growing and leading the business from our Northampton office base. My focus is on overseeing all sales, marketing and financial activities from Northampton. I assist clients with high-level asbestos management strategies and training. Together with Ian Stone I host our weekly podcast – Asbestos Knowledge Empire and I'm Co-author of Asbestos The Dark Arts and Fear and Loathing of Health and Safety.

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