What Is Asbestos?

The Properties of Asbestos

Asbestos is the collective name used to describe six different types of naturally occurring fibrous silicate minerals and is not a man-made substance as many people presume.

The fibres of all the different types of asbestos are so fine they cannot be seen by the human eye unless they are in clusters. Although asbestos fibres are microscopic and appear to be very delicate, they are surprisingly strong (stronger than steel) and durable, have superior insulating properties and are extremely resistant to fire.  The word asbestos actually comes from the Greek word meaning in-extinguishable. Individual asbestos fibres are the finest natural fibres known to man. An asbestos fibre about the diameter of a human hair (say 0.0015 inches or 40 microns thick) is actually a bundle of nearly 2 million individual fibres!

In addition to the above properties, asbestos was a comparatively cheap product to use and was therefore used in the building industry for a wide range of applications.  Subsequently, the numerous health issues relating to the use of asbestos containing materials were ignored and concealed by the manufacturers of asbestos products.

It is the very strength and resilience of asbestos that also makes it dangerous to human health. Such a fine material, which has only mild powers as a reflex irritant, is readily inhaled into the lungs when it becomes airborne. Asbestos fibres can penetrate bodily tissues, particularly the lungs, eventually causing tumours to develop.

Before the dangers of asbestos were known it was often used in buildings for insulation, flooring, roofing and sprayed on ceilings and walls. Whilst the use of asbestos has been banned in the UK for nearly 20 years, buildings constructed before the year 2000 may still have asbestos in them.  The Health and Safety Executive estimates that there are between 500,000 to 2 million industrial/ commercial buildings and around 2.4 million domestic premises which contain asbestos.