What is Asbestos?


The term asbestos refers to certain minerals with a fibrous structure called silicates which are found in the soil in certain parts of the world.

Asbestos is a very good insulator against heat, sound and electricity and so it was mined to make very useful building materials. Unfortunately, breathing in asbestos fibres causes life threatening diseases.

Asbestos was and still is mined in many countries, including South Africa, Canada Russia, India, and Brazil and is exported widely. Although its use is banned or strictly controlled in many western countries, it is still used with few or no precautions in the developing world.

It is accepted by all expert bodies, including the World Health Organisation that all types of asbestos cause mesothelioma

The epidemic of asbestos disease currently afflicting the western world is even now being exported to the developing world. Further information on the global use of asbestos can be obtained from the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS).

Asbestos in Buildings

Asbestos is still in place in many buildings in the UK. This includes factories, offices, schools and hospitals This results in continuing occupational exposure for construction, maintenance, and demolition workers if adequate precautions are not taken to identify and deal with asbestos.

People using the building may be at risk if the asbestos is poorly maintained. Further information on the dangers of asbestos in buildings is available from the Health & Safety Executive. Read further evidence regarding the ongoing health risks of asbestos in schools.

Types of Asbestos

The most dangerous asbestos fibres are the amphiboles, i.e. crocidolite (blue asbestos), amosite (brown or grey asbestos) and tremolite (a contaminant almost invariably present in commercially used chrysotile).

The amphiboles have a needle-like structure which helps them penetrate the lungs and damage the cells. They persist in the lungs for many years, many of them permanently. That is why the disease can appear many years after exposure to asbestos.

Chrysotile (white asbestos) fibres are curly and flexible. After being inhaled they penetrate less readily to the periphery of the lung and are cleared more rapidly because they are more soluble and easily broken up by the body’s natural defences.

In the lung some fibres become coated with the iron-containing protein ferritin, forming asbestos (‘ferruginous’) bodies. These can be seen on microscope slides of lung tissue and sometimes by microscopic examination of sputum coughed up by people who have been exposed to asbestos.

Ferruginous bodies in lungs
Ferruginous bodies in lungs

Asbestos: Health Effects

…all types of asbestos cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, cancer of the larynx and ovary, and asbestosis. World Health Organisation: www.who

There is some evidence to suggest that asbestos can also cause laryngeal cancer and may be implicated in causing pharyngeal, stomach and colorectal cancer…and conceivably a wide range of others. Asbestos: Effects on health of exposure to asbestos. 

Across Europe 10 asbestos-related cancers are recognised; in the UK only two, lung cancer and mesothelioma, are prescribed. And it seems IIAC is content to see workers with eight of the 10 asbestos related cancers continue to miss out. http://www.hazards

The UK Government advisory body the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council (IIAC)  currently lists only the following ‘prescribed’ diseases for the purposes of claiming Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit & State Compensation.

List of prescribed diseases;

  • D1 – Asbestosis
  • D3 – Mesothelioma
  • D8 – Primary carcinoma of the lung where there is accompanying evidence of asbestosis
  • D8A– Primary carcinoma of the lung
  • D9 – Diffuse Pleural Thickening

Asbestos: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’S) – Answers from HSE

Contains public sector information published by the Health and Safety Executive and licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

Last reviewed: February 2020