The Silent Killer: Why is Asbestos Dangerous?

Why is Asbestos Dangerous

Asbestos – this innocuous-sounding term hides an ugly truth, a truth that has claimed numerous lives and continues to pose a threat to millions across the globe. But, why is asbestos dangerous? The answer to this question is more intricate than you might imagine. So, sit back as we unravel the complexities of this lethal material, delving into its properties, its history, and the pernicious legacy it has left behind.

The Enigma of Asbestos: An Overview

Asbestos refers to a group of naturally occurring silicate minerals known for their heat resistance, durability, and insulating properties. The term “asbestos” actually derives from an ancient Greek word meaning “unquenchable” or “inextinguishable”. These characteristics made it highly coveted across various industries throughout the industrial age, being widely used in construction materials, automotive parts, and even fire-resistant clothing.

But why is asbestos dangerous despite its utility? The true danger of asbestos lies not in its inherent properties but in the way it breaks down. When disturbed, asbestos fibres can become airborne, posing a significant health risk to anyone who inhales or ingests them.

Why is Asbestos Dangerous: A Journey Through History

Asbestos, a substance that can trace its usage back to the Stone Age, truly began to shine during the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly, it was seen as a miracle material. It was robust, could withstand heat, muffle sound and it lasted. Asbestos became the go-to resource for an impressive range of applications.

Flash forward to the 20th century and you would find asbestos just about everywhere. It was in the roof over your head, in the brakes of your car, and used as insulation for electricity. Its ubiquity was such that most buildings constructed before the 1980s are more than likely harbouring some form of asbestos.

But what made this material so coveted is also what made it perilous. The crux of the problem lies in the physical characteristics of asbestos and the biological effects it can have. It’s important to break this down.

Imagine asbestos as a fibrous mineral. This allows it to be woven into materials or combined with cement. But when these materials are disrupted, the fibres can be easily inhaled or ingested. Then, factor in the size and shape of these fibres. They are minuscule, akin to needles. This means they can be easily breathed into the lungs, where they become embedded in the lung tissue. The body finds it difficult to expel these microscopic fibres, leading to chronic inflammation and scarring over time.

Let’s not forget about the durability of asbestos fibres. They can withstand heat, electricity, and chemical corrosion. But when they find their way into the human body, they do not dissolve. The body has trouble getting rid of them. This leads to prolonged exposure within the body, causing long-term health effects.

Then there’s the splitting ability of asbestos fibres. They are so strong, they can split along their lengths into thinner and thinner fibres, to the point where they become microscopic. This increases the number of fibres that can be inhaled, even from a small amount of asbestos.

Finally, we have to consider their bio-persistence. Asbestos fibres can stay within the human body, especially in lung tissue, for many years, even decades. Over time, this can lead to severe health problems, including asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.

So, the very properties that make asbestos incredibly useful in industrial applications also make it a significant threat to human health. When disturbed, asbestos releases tiny, durable fibres that can linger in the lungs for long periods, causing damage and potentially leading to serious health conditions.

The downside to this widespread use of asbestos, however, became painfully apparent over time. Despite early warnings about asbestos-related health issues appearing as far back as the 1930s, the full extent of asbestos-related diseases didn’t truly come to light until the late 20th century. This revelation led to a dramatic shift in the way we view and regulate this material.

Why was asbestos used?

Without a doubt, asbestos is a material that was once lauded for its remarkable properties, making it a favoured choice in numerous industries. Understanding what made asbestos so popular helps to shed light on the breadth of its historical use.

Asbestos, in its heyday, was the marvel of the construction industry. Its ability to resist heat and fire was unparalleled. This fire resistance property not only made buildings safer but also made asbestos a key player in shipbuilding. It was frequently used in fireproof coatings, fire barriers in walls, and even fire-resistant clothing for firefighters.

Its durability was another major selling point. The robust and flexible nature of asbestos fibres allowed them to be woven into fabrics or mixed into cement. This resulted in materials that boasted impressive longevity and resistance to wear and tear, a factor that further popularised asbestos across a myriad of sectors.

Another characteristic that led to the widespread adoption of asbestos was its superior insulation capabilities. Asbestos, with its excellent thermal insulation properties, found itself at the core of many buildings, wrapped around boilers and pipes, and nestled within various electrical products. The material ensured the containment of heat, thereby augmenting energy efficiency and safety.

The chemical resistance that asbestos offered was yet another feather in its cap. Its ability to remain impervious to many chemicals meant that it found a place in environments where chemical reactions were frequent and intense, such as factories and laboratories.

The fact that asbestos was a natural mineral that could be mined and processed with relative ease contributed to its affordability. This, in turn, made asbestos-based products an economically appealing choice for a range of industries.

Additionally, the electrical resistance of asbestos made it an effective barrier against electrical fires, bolstering its usage in electrical appliances.

These unique attributes collectively propelled asbestos into the limelight, making it a seemingly invaluable resource in many industries, from construction and shipbuilding to the automotive and electrical sectors. Regrettably, the very properties that made asbestos highly valued in industry – its durability, fire resistance, and insulation qualities – are also what make it so detrimental to human health when its fibres become airborne and are subsequently inhaled or ingested.

Why is Asbestos Dangerous?

The real danger of asbestos lies not in its inherent properties but in the way it breaks down. When asbestos-containing materials are damaged or disturbed, they release tiny fibres into the air. These fibres are microscopic, around 700 times smaller than human hair, making them easy to inhale or ingest without even realising it.

Once inhaled, these fibres can become lodged in the lungs, causing scarring, inflammation, and genetic damage to the cells, leading to deadly diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. This insidious danger is why asbestos is dangerous.

Why is Asbestos Dangerous: The Deadly Consequences of Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos-related diseases typically have a long latency period, sometimes taking up to 40 years to manifest symptoms. This latency period, coupled with the non-specific symptoms associated with these diseases, often results in late-stage diagnosis, further compounding the severity of these illnesses.

Asbestosis

Asbestosis is a chronic and progressive pulmonary disease that comes as a direct result of inhaling asbestos fibres. The disease is characterised by scarring (fibrosis) and stiffening or hardening (fibrotic change) of the lung tissue. This scarring is caused by the body’s defensive reaction to asbestos fibres trapped in the lungs.

This harmful fibrous material can remain lodged in the lung tissue for decades, causing inflammation and ultimately resulting in fibrosis. The fibrosis impairs the flexibility and elasticity of the lungs, progressively making it more difficult for oxygen to pass through the tiny air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs into the bloodstream. Consequently, a person suffering from asbestosis might experience difficulty breathing, persistent cough, chest pain, and fatigue.

Long-term exposure to asbestos is almost always a prerequisite for developing asbestosis, with symptoms typically manifesting after a latency period of 10-40 years following the initial exposure. This is a key reason why asbestos is dangerous.

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is one of the deadliest diseases associated with asbestos exposure. The correlation between asbestos and lung cancer was first recognised in the mid-20th century, leading to a growing concern over the widespread use of this hazardous material.

Inhaled asbestos fibres can embed themselves deep into the lung tissues. Over time, these fibres can cause substantial damage to the cells, leading to genetic mutations that result in the uncontrolled growth of cells – the defining characteristic of cancer. This asbestos-related lung cancer is akin to lung cancer caused by smoking and other environmental toxins, displaying similar symptoms such as persistent cough, chest pain, weight loss, and shortness of breath.

As with asbestosis, the risk of developing lung cancer increases with the amount and duration of asbestos exposure, with symptoms usually manifesting several decades after the initial exposure. This dire consequence reiterates why asbestos is dangerous.

Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a relatively rare but extremely aggressive form of cancer that predominantly affects the pleura (lining of the lungs), although it can also occur in the lining of the abdomen or heart. Mesothelioma is almost exclusively linked to asbestos exposure, making it a poignant indicator of the hazardous nature of asbestos, further answering the question: why is asbestos dangerous?

When asbestos fibres are inhaled, they not only can become lodged in the lung tissue, but they can also penetrate deeper into the lining of the lungs and chest wall – the pleura. The trapped fibres can cause irritation and inflammation over time, leading to the development of malignant mesothelioma.

The disease is notoriously difficult to diagnose in its early stages because symptoms, such as chest pain, shortness of breath, and fluid buildup around the lungs, can be easily mistaken for other less serious conditions. Unfortunately, due to its aggressive nature and late diagnosis, mesothelioma often has a poor prognosis, underscoring the extreme danger posed by asbestos exposure.

Why is Asbestos Dangerous: Common Sources of Asbestos Exposure

While the use of asbestos has been significantly restricted in recent years, the legacy of its widespread usage continues to pose a risk. Asbestos can still be found in many older homes, schools, factories, and other structures built before the 1980s.

It’s not just in buildings, either. Asbestos can also be found in older vehicles, household appliances, and even some consumer products. Therefore, renovating or demolishing older structures, repairing old cars, or handling certain vintage items can put you at risk of exposure. This prevalence highlights why asbestos is dangerous.

Why is Asbestos Dangerous: A Tangle of Laws and Regulations

In the UK, asbestos was fully banned in 1999. Today, the use, import, and supply of all forms of asbestos are prohibited. Existing asbestos materials, however, can remain in place until they become damaged or start to degrade.

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 outlines the responsibilities of building owners and employers to manage asbestos risks, and failing to comply with these regulations can result in hefty fines or even imprisonment.

Protecting Yourself: Practical Tips to Prevent Asbestos Exposure

While it’s impossible to completely eliminate the risk of asbestos exposure, there are steps you can take to protect yourself and those around you.

  1. Be aware of potential sources of asbestos in your environment.
  2. If you suspect asbestos in your home or workplace, hire a professional asbestos surveyor to confirm its presence.
  3. Never attempt to remove or disturb asbestos-containing materials yourself – always hire a specialist asbestos removal contractor.

Reflections and Future Implications

Despite the many advancements in asbestos regulation and awareness, asbestos-related diseases still claim thousands of lives each year in the UK. More research is needed to develop better diagnostic tools and treatments for these diseases.

Asbestos serves as a stark reminder of how the materials we use can impact our health in profound and lasting ways. While we cannot erase the mistakes of the past, we can learn from them to make safer and healthier choices for our future.

For those seeking further information or support, organisations such as the British Lung Foundation and the Health and Safety Executive offer invaluable resources and guidance.

At Specialist Remediation Solutions, we understand the gravity of asbestos-related health risks.

If you suspect asbestos in your property, don’t delay – reach out to us today for a quote and let our professional team ensure your safety.

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