What exactly is asbestos?

Written by: Brook Spencer | Published:
Health dangers: There are various types of asbestos mineral stones. The most common asbestos to be found in buildings is the chrysotile (white asbestos) and the amosite (brown) forms (Image: Adobe Stock))

With around 85 per cent of UK schools containing asbestos, SecEd has long written about the implications of managing this potentially deadly material. Brook Spencer considers what asbestos is and why it is a danger

Asbestos mining began approximately 4,000 years ago, and for centuries it was thought that asbestos was a miracle mineral.

The naturally occurring, fibrous material is made up of silicates and has proven beneficial in a variety of applications, including construction materials. That is because asbestos is known to be fire-retardant, heat resistant, sound resistant and durable. Due to these properties, it is not uncommon to find asbestos fibres in materials like caulks and adhesives, insulation, cements, plasters and even tile flooring.

It wasn’t until the late-1800s that asbestos was found to cause health problems and legislation to control the substance’s use was not enacted until the mid-1900s in many parts of the world.

At least 60 countries worldwide currently have bans on asbestos, and it is expected that more will follow suit by 2020. Unfortunately, not all countries will go this route despite the life-threatening health risks associated with asbestos.

But how does asbestos impact on our health? Asbestos is generally safe when left alone but if it is disturbed and becomes airborne the material becomes toxic. When you breathe in asbestos the fibres stick to the mesothelium, a membrane that forms the lining of multiple body cavities, including the pleura (thoracic cavity), peritoneum (abdominal cavity), and pericardium (heart sac). Asbestos can remain there for decades before it actually causes diseases.

Asbestos exposure can cause a variety of different health complications, but the most aggressive is mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a very rare form of cancer that takes the lives of approximately 2,500 people in the United States, and around 5,000 in the United Kingdom, each year. Symptoms of mesothelioma vary based on the type of cancer, but commonly include fatigue, hoarseness, fever, nausea, chest pain and coughing. The disease is typically diagnosed by using a variety of tests such as imaging scans, blood tests, biomarkers, and biopsies. In most cases, a mesothelioma diagnosis also comes with a very grim prognosis. On average, patients are given a life expectancy of 12 to 21 months. A typical mesothelioma prognosis depends on a variety of factors like the age and health of patient, as well as type of mesothelioma and the stage. Only about 40 per cent of patients live beyond one year after diagnosis, and only nine per cent live longer than five years.

Treatment options for mesothelioma are similar to other types of cancer. Patients often receive a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. However, in recent years immunotherapy advancements have made new options possible for mesothelioma patients. Immunotherapy is a treatment option using a patient’s own immune system to fight cancer cells more effectively, and can often reduce the risk of symptoms from chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Always be cautious

Asbestos has the potential to be an extremely harmful substance, so it must be taken seriously. Since it is not banned in full there remains a risk of exposure. To protect yourself and those around you from possible asbestos exposure, make sure to keep these tips in mind:

  • Asbestos is most commonly found in structures built before the 1970s and can be found in a variety of different materials listed online (see http://bit.ly/2pz8KBU).
  • Asbestos becomes dangerous when it’s disturbed and airborne, so always consult a professional to handle asbestos abatement
  • If you suspect you have been exposed to asbestos consult a healthcare professional with your concerns.
  • If you believe asbestos is present in your school or your children’s school direct your concerns to the administration.

As more older structures start to have problems, more are discovering asbestos issues due to worn and damaged asbestos. This is due to fibres of asbestos flaking off and becoming airborne. Asbestos removal must be done with extreme caution, sometimes shutting down the structure while the removal is taking place.

While asbestos fibre possesses beneficial properties, the negatives far outweigh the positives. The material has taken the lives of too many innocent people, and will continue causing damage years after it is banned globally. Currently, asbestos is banned in at least 60 countries around the world. Although not all of these countries have banned the material completely, there are certain exceptions or partial bans in place.

  • Brook Spencer is a community engagement director with the American-based Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, which provides resources and up-to-date information about mesothelioma and campaigns for the substance to be banned across the globe. Visit www.mesothelioma.com

Asbestos in UK schools

The accepted figure is that around 85 per cent of UK schools contain asbestos in some form.

More than 224 teachers in England died from mesothelioma between 2003 and 2012. However, between 1980 and 1985 there were 15 recorded mesothelioma deaths among school teachers – just three per year. In 2012 alone, there were 22.

In 2013, government advisors warned that children are more at risk from asbestos exposure than adults and MPs on the Education Select Committee have previously heard evidence that as many as 300 people a year could now be dying because of exposure during their time at school.

The government has a policy of managing asbestos in schools in situ rather than automatically removing the deadly material. However, in the past decade there has been a growing campaign, led by the Asbestos in Schools campaign group as well as the Joint Union Asbestos Committee, for the phased removal of all asbestos materials.

Just before the 2015 General Election, the government published a report pledging clearer guidance on managing asbestos in schools and action to ensure all duty holders were aware of their responsibilities in relation to the presence in schools of asbestos.

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