Why is asbestos dangerous?

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Posted on January 07, 2019

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), asbestos is responsible for 4,500 deaths a year, and is the biggest single cause of occupationally-related deaths. This is likely to be an underestimate because this figure only includes those that have been reported and proved as being attributable to exposure to asbestos.

Asbestos containing materials (ACMs) are potentially harmful as they can release dust or fibres into the air, which can be inhaled or ingested and if small enough, can pass deep into the lungs.

Once they are trapped in the body, the fibres can cause health problems and the following serious diseases: Mesothelioma This is a rare form of cancer that develops from cells of the mesothelium, the protective lining that covers many of the internal organs of the body.

It most commonly occurs in the outer lining of the lungs and internal chest wall, but it can also arise in the lining of the abdominal cavity and the sacs that surrounds the heart and testicles. It is always fatal. Lung cancer This is a disease characterized by uncontrolled cell growth in tissues of the lung.

Although not always fatal only 7.8% of men and 9.3% of women survive five years or more after initial diagnosis. Asbestosis This is fibrosis, or scarring of the lungs caused by long term or heavy exposure to asbestos. In itself it is not generally fatal and the majority of those diagnosed with asbestosis live with their disability all their lives and once it reaches a plateau it tends not to deteriorate further.

However it can become very debilitating and there is a 10% chance of it developing into mesothelioma and a 20 – 50% chance of it developing into lung cancer. It therefore needs to be closely managed and monitored. Pleural plaques These are areas of calcification on the lining of the lungs, chest wall, and diaphragm. In some cases this can develop into damage and thickening of the wall between lungs and rib-cage resulting in chest pains and breathlessness.

Although not fatal this can be very debilitating and needs to be monitored to check that it does not develop into more serious conditions.

The latest figures released by the HSE for diseases associated with occupational exposure to asbestos many years ago, are summarised as follows:


Reference: HSE Statistics, October 2015 *

In addition it is estimated that there are about as many asbestos-related lung cancer deaths each year as there are mesothelioma deaths.

According to Wayne Williams, Director IATP:

“Many workers, especially tradespeople, assume they're not at risk, because asbestos was banned many years ago, we must continue to raise the awareness of the dangers of asbestos exposure to the trade. Asbestos remains in many buildings, and it is still a risk to workers. Asbestos is likely to be present in any building constructed or refurbished before the year 2000. An estimated half a million buildings contain it. “

If a building containing asbestos is repaired or maintained and the asbestos fibres are disturbed – for instance, by drilling or cutting – they can easily be inhaled as a deadly dust. Opening a window or drinking a glass of water will not protect you against the dangers of asbestos.

Wayne continued:

“We need to educate tradespeople about how asbestos and its dangers are relevant to them. We want them to change the way they work and ensure they are appropriately trained so that they don’t put their lives at risk.”

Graham Blacksmith, 64, developed mesothelioma after exposure to asbestos in his job as a carpenter. He refurbished domestic houses, which often involved knocking ceilings and walls down as part of the conversion process. He removed any asbestos found during the work and disposed of it into skips for removal. He had no training on how to handle it. After experiencing chest pains and breathlessness, he went to visit his doctor, who referred him for a chest X-ray and other lung tests. Graham was diagnosed with mesothelioma.

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