Asbestos: Origin, UK Legislation, and Safe Removal
Asbestos, a term that evokes concerns of health risks and structural hazards, was once a celebrated building material due to its remarkable properties. However, as understanding of its health implications grew, legislation in countries like the UK took steps to manage and eliminate the risk. Here, we’ll delve deep into what asbestos is, its origins, UK legislation related to it, and the steps to safely remove it.
What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a collective name for a group of silicate minerals composed of fibrous structures. These minerals are naturally occurring and can be separated into thin, durable threads, resistant to heat, electricity, and chemical corrosion. These properties made asbestos an ideal material for various applications, especially in construction, insulation, and fireproofing.
The six types of asbestos minerals are:
- Chrysotile (white asbestos)
- Crocidolite (blue asbestos)
- Amosite (brown or grey asbestos)
Of these, chrysotile, crocidolite, and amosite were the most commercially utilized.
Origin and History of Asbestos
The use of asbestos dates back thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians, for example, used asbestos cloths for burial rites. The Greeks used it to make lamp wicks, and the Romans used asbestos fabrics to wrap the dead before cremation to prevent ash contamination. Its name itself is derived from the ancient Greek word meaning “inextinguishable” or “indestructible”.
The large-scale industrial use of asbestos began in the late 19th century when its properties became essential for the booming manufacturing and construction sectors. It was used in items such as fire-resistant roofing, flooring, electrical insulation, and even in shipbuilding for its insulation properties. By the mid-20th century, asbestos was hailed as a “miracle mineral” due to its widespread use.
However, by the late 20th century, it became evident that inhalation of asbestos fibres could lead to serious health issues. Microscopic asbestos fibers, when released into the air and inhaled, can get trapped in the lungs and remain there for prolonged periods. Over time, these fibres can accumulate and cause inflammation, leading to several health issues, including:
- Asbestosis: A chronic lung disease causing shortness of breath, coughing, and permanent lung damage.
- Mesothelioma: A rare form of cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, chest cavity, or abdomen. It’s primarily linked to asbestos exposure.
- Other types of lung cancer and cancers of the larynx and ovaries.
With mounting evidence of these health risks, many countries, including the UK, began re-evaluating the use of asbestos.
UK Legislation on Asbestos
The history of asbestos regulation in the UK is long and evolved as understanding of its dangers grew:
- The Asbestos Industry Regulations 1931: This was the UK’s first legislation aimed at controlling asbestos dust in factories. However, it only applied to specific processes and didn’t cover all industries.
- Asbestos Licensing Regulations 1983: This brought stricter controls, requiring businesses working with asbestos insulation or coating to have a license.
- Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 1987: Expanded on previous regulations, making employers responsible for preventing asbestos exposure to workers. It also required employers to conduct regular risk assessments.
- The Asbestos (Prohibitions) Regulations 1992: This marked a significant move by banning the import, sale, and supply of both crocidolite and amosite asbestos. Over time, more prohibitions were added, including chrysotile in 1999.
- The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006: This combined previous legislations, providing a more comprehensive framework. It required those responsible for maintenance in non-domestic premises to manage asbestos.
- The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012: The most recent update, which combined and updated previous laws. This legislation requires mandatory training for anyone liable to be exposed to asbestos fibres at work.
As a result of the known dangers, the removal of asbestos should always be conducted with utmost caution. Here’s a basic guide:
- Identification: Before any removal process, it’s crucial to identify the presence of asbestos. Professional asbestos surveys can help in this regard.
- Engage Professionals: Due to its hazardous nature, asbestos removal should ideally be performed by licensed professionals who understand the risks and have the equipment to handle it safely.
- Safety Measures: Workers should wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). This includes respiratory protection, disposable overalls, and boots. It’s crucial to ensure that asbestos fibres are not inhaled or ingested.
- Containment: The area where asbestos removal is taking place should be isolated. This prevents the spread of asbestos fibres to uncontaminated areas.
- Wet Removal Method: Asbestos should be kept wet during the removal process. This reduces the chances of fibres becoming airborne.
- Waste Disposal: Asbestos waste should be placed in sealable, labeled containers. It should then be disposed of at designated hazardous waste sites.
- Post-Removal: After removal, the area should be thoroughly cleaned using HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) vacuums to ensure no residual fibers remain.
- Air Monitoring: After the removal process, it’s essential to monitor the air to ensure no residual asbestos fibres remain.
Asbestos, once revered for its unique properties, became a significant health concern by the late 20th century. Understanding its history and the evolution of regulations, especially in countries like the UK, highlights the importance of adapting to new scientific findings for public health. If one ever encounters this mineral in older buildings or structures, it’s crucial to approach the situation with caution, always prioritising safety and adherence to the appropriate guidelines.