Ten Alps Digital

Take great precautions with asbestos

Chris Hudson, of HB Insulations, discusses the hazard of asbestos, not only to human health, but also its damaging affect on the environment

Asbestos minerals have certain properties which make them highly desirable for industrial use. Consequently, it was used extensively in the UK from the 1940s and the 1980s.

It is now estimated that up to half a million UK commercial, industrial and public buildings contain asbestos materials. As these have more than likely been in place for 20-60 years they would have consequently begun to deteriorate and now pose a danger through fibre release, draughts, vibration and damage.

Once asbestos becomes free from a mould, such as concrete, and is allowed to become airborne, the fibres can be break down to be small enough for humans to inhale and get trapped in the innermost sections of the lungs. These fibres will remain in the body for the rest of the person's life with the potential to cause several fatal diseases.

Almost 1,900 people die every year from an asbestos related disease in the UK, most commonly mesothelioma, a cancer of the membranes that line the chest and abdomen. This figure is expected to rise to a staggering 10,000 per year by 2011.

Individuals working in areas like demolition, construction and building maintenance are at particular risk to asbestos exposure and great precaution must be taken to test for and handle the material.
Therefore it is crucial that contractors employ trained professionals to safely take samples, remove and dispose of asbestos.

However, it is not only buildings under threat from demolition and refurbishment that should be treated with caution. Employers may have asbestos present in their workplace that has gone unrecognised and thus untreated.

For instance, recent statistics have revealed that in the last 20 years, 100 teachers have died from contact with asbestos.

The Government's scientific advisory committee, Working Group on Action to Control Chemicals (WATCH) identified that asbestos fibres could potentially be released by pinning work to walls containing asbestos.

Although risks of exposure is minimal, such activities should be stopped nonetheless and indicates that education employers should get a professional survey carried out so that they can be aware of asbestos in their schools and actively manage it.

Although the health hazards of asbestos becoming widely recognised, there is still little focus on the documentation and publicity of the ecological and environmental research involving asbestos fibres. Asbestos may be found in soil that has formed from the erosion of asbestos bearing rock. Contaminated soil can also result from mixing soil with demolition rubble, poor management of materials at industrial sites and poor waste disposal practices. This is therefore evidence for why fly tipping can be quite such a dangerous and problematic issue.

Most people are unaware of the places where asbestos can be found or the danger of the material. Consequently, it can often exist within goods which are illegally dumped. Asbestos may be present in manufactured products including insulation, automotive brakes and clutches, ceiling and floor tiles.
It is not only the land which can be polluted by asbestos, fibres can also contaminate aquatic environments. This can occur if asbestos waste is dumped into lakes - by the runoff of process and air scrubber water into lakes and streams, and by the use of asbestos cement pipes in water supply systems. In addition, as asbestos is a naturally occurring substance in can be present in surface and ground water.

Asbestos in water is hazardous as the fibres do not evaporate into air or break down in water. Therefore the fibres can be carried long distances before settling to the bottom. Asbestos is not affected by photolytic processes and is considered to be non biodegradable by aquatic organisms and as the fibres are not broken down to other compounds it can remain present in the environment for many decades.

The health effects from swallowing asbestos are unclear, yet research indicates that people exposed to asbestos fibres in their drinking water have higher than average death rates from cancer of the esophagus, stomach and intestines, but whether this is caused solely by asbestos remains undetermined.
With the knowledge that asbestos does not dissolve in water or evaporate and is resistant to heat, fire and chemical and biological degradation, it is essential that it is disposed of as hazardous waste.

There are various professional methods of removing the substance and special bags for disposing of it. Therefore, the safe removal of asbestos can be a straightforward process if managed and controlled by experienced specialists, which will protect both the environment and human health.
Chris Hudson, is a director of asbestos removal company HB Insulations.