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What is asbestos?

Asbestos is the name given to a group of naturally occurring minerals made up of microscopic fibres.  It has been mined for many hundreds of years and the word “asbestos” comes from the Greek word for unquenchable or inextinguishable.

Asbestos was used extensively in various industries such as construction, shipbuilding and manufacturing.  It was so popular because of its fireproof qualities.  It is non-flammable and virtually indestructible and the fibres could be mixed with cement or woven into fabric or mats.  These qualities and ease of use led to it being dubbed at the time as the “magic mineral.”  However, as well as being very useful it is also very dangerous because when materials that contain asbestos are damaged or disturbed this releases fibres into the air.  When these fibres are breathed in or swallowed they can cause very serious diseases.

The three common types of asbestos used in manufacturing are chrysotile (white), amosite (brown) and crocidolite (blue). 

The Health and Safety Executive estimates that asbestos is responsible for about 5000 deaths a year.  This is more than the numbers of people killed by road accidents.  They estimate that about 20 tradesmen die each week as a result of previous asbestos exposure and warn that asbestos can still be found in any building that was built before 2000.  It was not until as late as 1999 that chrysotile was finally banned in the UK but the dangerous legacy remains.

Asbestos was used in many different materials and some of the uses include:
  • Lagging for insulating pipework and boilers.
  • Rope, string and paper.
  • Sprayed asbestos in buildings, ships and locomotive engines (Limpet).
  • Building and partition fireproof sheets.
  • Corrugated roof sheets.
  • Ceiling tiles.
  • Floor tiles.
  • Fire doors.
  • Gloves and aprons.
  • Fireproof suits.
  • Artex.
  • Fireproof blankets.
  • Gaskets.
  • Ironing boards.
  • Bunsen burner mats.

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