Why Was Asbestos Banned in the UK?
Why Was Asbestos Banned in the UK?
Asbestos is a natural silicate material that has been used by humans for over 4000 years. Its natural fibrous property leads it to be an incredible insulator and fire retardant when used as a building material. Due to these 2 properties, asbestos was used in roofing, piping, sewage systems and floor tiles. It was considered a wonder material due to its ability to fortify concrete, whilst being cheap to produce and easy to apply, where needed, in multiple ways.
However, asbestos’s use has ceased worldwide over the last half century as it has been found to cause serious health issues to those who worked with it. Sometimes, these health issues were reported in those who lived in buildings that used asbestos, too. The UK’s response was to outlaw the use of asbestos from as early as 1985, with all uses of asbestos being banned as late as 1999.
Long-term asbestos exposure was found to cause health issues and even death to those who installed, removed, handled or spent prolonged periods of time near this material. This adverse effect is known as ‘Asbestosis’ and kills over 100,000 people a year Workers or people with preexisting lung conditions are most vulnerable to this illness. It also causes a variety of cancers.
We will cover asbestos exposure, its ill effects and the steps the UK government has made to ban its use in more detail below. But first, let's take a look at asbestos in its most basic form.
Asbestos is almost unique in nature and, for our purposes, comes in either a Brown or White form. Both types of asbestos are incredibly lightweight and are of a crystalline structure. It is brittle, yet can be spun into a silk-like fibre which weighs less than 20 grams per 100 meters in length. It is this lightness in weight that gives asbestos its fire retardant and insulator properties, similar to modern-day fibreglass.
It appears in many forms, as mentioned, but only white and brown cause current issues to health. Let’s review these separately and see how they differ in usage and potential to harm.
It is also worth noting that asbestos is categorised by colour which is only apparent under a microscope. Brown asbestos is indistinguishable from white asbestos to the naked eye.
Brown asbestos was used for its sturdiness and fire retardant properties more than its white counterpart. Its usage was outlawed by the Asbestos Prohibition Regulations (1985) much earlier than white asbestos (1999). It is used for much more industrial purposes than white. It was often used in;
- corrugated asbestos cement,
- asbestos insulation board,
- panel sheeting on roofs,
The Health and Safety Executive for the UK notes some use of ‘Blue Asbestos’ (crocidolite or amphibole) before 1960. This is similar to brown asbestos for the most part, and it is treated similarly to brown.
Brown asbestos is much less refined than white asbestos and poses much more of a risk to people's health. This is why the UK lawmakers were fast to outlaw brown asbestos, but why was white asbestos only made unavailable for sale until much later? Let’s have an overview of white asbestos and the difference in risks between the two.
White asbestos, also known as serpentine or chrysotile asbestos, was the most common use of asbestos found in the UK. Fortunately, white asbestos is much less harmful than brown asbestos, and it was used as;
- insulation material for buildings,
- boilers and pipes,
- car brakes,
- toilet seats,
- floor tiles.
White asbestos fibres are softer than those of brown asbestos, are much easier to bend, and do not become as airborne once agitated. For this reason, white asbestos wasn’t seen as much of a concern by UK lawmakers. Later, it would become apparent that even white asbestos caused significant harm to those who used it.
To dig deeper, let's see exactly how asbestos causes harm in either form and why it was outlawed as a result. If you are wanting to learn more about asbestos, how to identify it, and how to remove it safely, you should complete our online course on Asbestos Awareness. It’s £4.99 and gives you a recognised certificate on asbestos management and free resources for life.
When clumped together in small chunks, asbestos doesn’t pose a significant threat to humans. It is only once airborne that we can breathe in the fibres. The inhalation of these fibres and the resulting ailment is known as ‘Asbestosis’ when referred to generally and causes a reported 20 tradesmen to die each week.
It is only through disturbing asbestos either through fixing, moving or removing a material which contains asbestos do these fibres become airborne which then poses a threat. In many cases, illnesses aren't apparent until 20-30 years after asbestos exposure. This is the main reason as to why UK lawmakers were slow to act as the risks weren’t apparent straight away.
When asbestos is breathed in, it can cause the following illnesses:
is the swelling of the lungs when a person breathes in asbestos. The thin spikes of the asbestos cut and inflame the lung, making it difficult to breathe. It can cause a squeezed feeling across the chest. These symptoms are felt early after asbestos exposure and are indicative of possible future problems.
Asbestosis is the name for the damage and resultant scarring given to the lungs once you have inhaled asbestos. You might exhibit symptoms of;
- shortness of breath,
- pain in the chest,
- (in some cases) clubbing of the fingers.
In most cases, the symptoms of asbestosis aren’t felt until many years after breathing in asbestos. It is often diagnosed in former tradespeople, such as plumbers, builders or electricians.
Mesothelioma is a type of cancer which occurs in the lower digestive tract and respiratory system. If you are diagnosed with mesothelioma, it is likely a result of asbestos exposure. Once diagnosed, it is often fatal. Over 2,700 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma a year, most of which are over 75 and male.
Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer
Asbestos causes cancers by sticking into the pleura lining of the lung, causing mutations. These mutations can turn into cancers and spread.
Asbestos and lung cancer are historically tied in the minds of those who remember it being outlawed and the resulting social panic. Similar in nature to the damage caused by cigarette smoking, asbestos-related cancers occur at similar rates to that caused by mesothelioma.
As mentioned, these illnesses were not immediately apparent when people were working with asbestos. As a result, many people treated asbestos carelessly and became ill as a result years later. It was only with ongoing medical advancements and research that the pieces started to fall into place and it became apparent that asbestos was the cause of these illnesses.
The UK government took various measures to outlaw asbestos use, however, much still remains in historic properties and buildings. As mentioned, the supply of Blue and Brown asbestos was outlawed in 1985 in an act called The Asbestos Legislation Regulations. This regulation bans the use of;
‘... crocidolite, amosite, fibrous actinolite, fibrous anthophyllite, fibrous tremolite and any mixture containing any of those minerals.’
These regulations didn’t include white asbestos, and therefore its use was still somewhat commonplace in the UK. The Regulations were amended in 1999 to say;
‘Subject to the provisions of the Schedule to these Regulations, no person shall supply or use (a) chrysotile; or (b) any product to which chrysotile has intentionally been added, unless it was in use before 24th November 1999.’
This amendment further outlawed the use and supply of white asbestos fibres after the 24th of November 1999 by the Secretary of State by the power of The Health and Safety At Work Act of 1974.
The removal of asbestos is still being carried out to this day, and precautions should be taken when handling it at all times.
If you are buying or working in a home that was built before 1985, asbestos was likely used in its construction. As we have mentioned, unless you disrupt asbestos, causing its fibres to become airborne, this shouldn’t pose significant health risks.
If you are planning on working with a building that has asbestos, you should carry out a risk assessment If you find asbestos on the property, you should report it to your local authority immediately.
Carrying out a risk assessment with HSEDocs allows you to limit the risks associated with asbestos and its removal by following practices that are approved by recognised authorities.
To severely reduce your and those around you’s exposure to asbestos, you should also consider using our online asbestos awareness course today as it gives you an in-depth understanding of how to recognise, understand and handle asbestos, reducing these risks to a minimum.
[Note to the uploader, add in links to ‘Asbestos: Everything You Need To Know’ once it is written and can be made relevant]