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As you may already know, asbestos is banned in the UK as it causes devastating health issues. In spite of it not having been in use since 1999, it still causes around 5,000 deaths a year due to being present in older structures. However, not everyone understands the dangers of asbestos and how it can affect our health.

In this blog, we will provide a brief overview of this material and explain how you can protect yourself and others from it.

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is made of a group of silicate minerals that are found in natural deposits in the ground. Asbestos crystals are long and thin, which makes them look like fibres.

This fibrous material has excellent resistance to heat and is a poor conductor of electricity. It is also great at providing thermal protection. It was because of these properties that people started using asbestos for insulation, flooring and roofing in houses and buildings.

There are six types of asbestos:

Whilst only the first four are used commercially, all six are considered dangerous. But why?

Why is Asbestos Dangerous?

As we mentioned before, asbestos crystals are long and thin, like fibres and are extremely fragile.

The slightest disturbance to asbestos makes the crystals disintegrate into tiny shards which are so small and light that they can be invisible to the naked eye and remain airborne for quite some time if disturbed.

If a person breathes that asbestos-laden air, they can inhale those tiny crystals. Once inside the body, these particles can get into the respiratory passage and lungs.

To understand why the fibre can cause so much damage, imagine tiny little needles made of glass. That’s essentially what these fibres resemble. They get into the respiratory passage and embed into the lung tissue.

Once embedded, they remain there as the body has no system of getting rid of them, accumulating with prolonged exposure and causing diseases.

Why is asbestos dangerous? - Close-up of asbestos crystals

Diseases Caused by Asbestos

Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma, cancer of the lung lining (pleura) and lower digestive tract lining (peritoneum), is almost always caused by asbestos. The reason why it’s so dangerous is that it is usually discovered at a very late stage.

Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer

Lung cancer caused by asbestos is the same as lung cancer caused by smoking or other factors, except that it’s been caused by irritation due to this specific material. Asbestos exposure is much more likely to cause lung cancer than mesothelioma, even though the latter is more commonly associated with this material.

Asbestosis

Asbestosis is a condition where the lung is severely scarred because of asbestos fibres that have been inhaled. Whenever our body is injured, it quickly generates scar tissue to cover the wound. When the mineral fibres get embedded in the lungs, the body treats them like tiny injuries and covers them with scar tissue.

As you may know, lungs are like balloons that expand and contract as you breathe. The more they expand, the more air you can breathe and the more oxygen your body gets. Now, imagine putting sticky tape over the balloon. The area where the tape is will no longer expand (because sticky tape, unlike latex, does not stretch). Cover it with enough tape and it will not be able to expand at all.

Scar tissue, unlike the tissue of the lungs, is like sticky tape… it does not expand. As a result, if the lungs get excessive scarring, you don’t get enough air and can experience shortness of breath. In severe cases, it can also sadly lead to death.

Pleural Thickening

Pleura, as we said before, is the lining of the lung. With prolonged asbestos exposure, it can get irritated, which may cause it to thicken and swell. Unlike asbestosis, this does not affect the lungs’ ability to expand. However, thickened lining in the lungs reduces the space available for air, which leads to breathlessness and discomfort.

A sign at a construction site warning of the danger of asbestos

As you can see, the dangers of asbestos include life-threatening conditions, which is why it is no longer allowed to be used. However, older constructions, built before 2000, may still have asbestos insulation or flooring. This is why you need to protect your workers and yourself when you undertake repairs on or demolish these structures.

Protection Against Asbestos

Firstly, always use the right Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) to protect your eyes, nose and mouth from airborne asbestos particulates.

PPE against asbestos includes:

  • Disposable overalls with a hood
  • Disposable gloves to protect your hands from exposure.
  • Disposable overshoes or your own shoes but they shouldn’t be lace-ups
  • Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) or disposable respirators and masks

Extraction

Wherever possible, you should use the right extraction solution so dangerous dust particles like asbestos or other minerals can be removed from the air before they become a danger to you and those around you.

Extractors for the building and construction industry are equipped with filters designed to deal with all dust particle sizes, ranging from large swarf to invisible asbestos crystals. They are also able to deal with the larger volumes of particulate matter generated.

At VODEX, we offer a variety of extraction systems designed especially for the harmful fumes and dust you’d encounter within the construction industry. Whether you need a mobile dust collection system or a heavy-duty downflow extraction bench, we will be able to help you.

If you’re not sure which product would be suitable for your needs, please get in touch with us. We’d be happy to help you.

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