Asbestos is the name that is given to a group of 6 different chemical substances. These substances are fibrous minerals which have been used for a wide range of different tasks over the last few centuries. Although asbestos has previously been used for hundreds of different things, it is now known that asbestos can pose a real health and safety risk.
The use of asbestos is now banned across the UK; however the legislation did not require the removal and destruction of existing asbestos products. This is because the prevalence of asbestos-related products would make this nearly impossible.
Asbestos was widely used in the past because it has a number of extremely favourable qualities. It is extremely durable and can be mixed with a lot of different materials to give a variety of asbestos products. These products were extremely popular in the building industry because they were heat-resistant, fireproof and not liable to chemically react with other substances.
The procedures used to process asbestos allowed it to be made into ceiling materials, floor tiles, heat-protection barriers, roofing materials, automobile parts, protective clothing and hundreds of other items. However, many of the resistant qualities of asbestos also help to make asbestos fibres harmful to humans.
Asbestos fibres are incredibly small and thin. When asbestos products are damaged, these fibres can become airborne and they may be inhaled. Once these fibres have been inhaled, it can be nearly impossible to get these fibres out of the respiratory system. These strong, but tiny fibres rub away at the lining of the respiratory system
and can cause severe irritation. This may lead to breathing difficulties and infections. Over time, the constant irritation of the system will increase the likelihood of cancer. The properties of asbestos mean that these fibres do not break down or get expelled from the respiratory system once they have become lodged in the soft tissue.
Chrysotile Asbestos (white asbestos) is the most common type of asbestos. It is still mined in some locations, including in North America, with some proponents continuing to argue that the benefits outweigh the risks.
The vast majority of all asbestos found in UK homes is white asbestos. It was regularly used for fireproofing and insulation in homes, because it was inexpensive and effective. It is also found in many automobile parts, such as the gaskets which are used in the hottest parts of the engine.
Amosite Asbestos (brown asbestos) was the second most commonly used type of asbestos in the United Kingdom. It is also the type of asbestos which is considered to have the highest cancer risk associated with it. The import and use of this type of asbestos was banned in 1985 when it became apparent that it was partially responsible for thousands of deaths across the country. Amosite was most frequently used in; electrical and thermal insulation products; floor, ceiling and roof tiles; cement sheets and types of lagging.
Crocidolite Asbestos (blue asbestos) is relatively uncommon in the United Kingdom, but it is a high risk form of the material. As such, blue asbestos was banned at around the same time that brown asbestos was banned.
Blue asbestos is more brittle than other types of asbestos, meaning that it can break and become airborne more easily. Studies suggest that this form of asbestos is responsible for more deaths than any other form of asbestos, despite being less widely used.
Death tolls are highest near to blue asbestos mines, in areas like South Africa and South America. Crocidolite was used for spray-on insulation, waterproofing, millboards, and acid battery storage casing.
This form of asbestos is sometimes referred to as brown asbestos, although it is not as common as the Amosite form. Anthophyllite contains large amounts of iron and magnesium which help to give it its colour. It is not normally used in consumer products in the United Kingdom, so does not pose a major threat to citizens.
Some medical studies have also shown that this form of asbestos is not conclusively linked to asbestos-related illnesses.
Actinolite asbestos is the rarest form of asbestos and is rarely used because of this. It is considered as a subset of Amosite asbestos, and it has very similar properties.
This type of asbestos can be a range of beautiful colours and is sometimes used as a gemstone.
Tremolite asbestos is still mined in India, but it was rarely used in the United Kingdom. It is also sometimes used as a gemstone. Tremolite normally appears as a contaminant in other substances, rather than a main ingredient.
Tremolite has even been found as a contaminant in household ingredients like talcum powder.