What is asbestos?
While it was once known as the magic mineral, today,asbestos is a serious health hazard and one that we’re still battling with. A group of minerals made of microscopic fibres, asbestos can be pulled to a fluffy consistency. This is one of the reasons why the material originally became so popular, as well as a reason why it is so potentially dangerous.
For those wondering ‘what does asbestos look like?’,and furthermore, ‘what is asbestos made of?’, the answer is that it is actually not a single type of material. Rather, it’s a group of silicate minerals that share that fibrous quality. This is known as their eponymous asbestiform habit.
Altogether, the types of asbestos consist of six naturally occurring silicate minerals, commonly known by their colours. While there’s some debate on the most dangerous asbestos type – with many sources suggesting the blue crocidoliteis the most harmful – the most important thing to bear in mind is that all types can cause health issues. So, considering all this, you may be asking ’what is asbestos used for?’
The reason that asbestos became such a common construction material in the first place owes to the material’s versatility, such as its resistant to heat, electricity and chemical corrosion. This allowed it to be mixed with cloth, plastic, cement and other materials in order to make them stronger. There’s also, of course, its most famous use and that’s as an insulator. Unfortunately, unknown to the public for a long time, asbestos was,and still is, actually extremely dangerous.
What make asbestos dangerous?
The fibrous nature of asbestos – the quality that originally made it so appealing and profitable – is also part of the problem. When materials that contain asbestos are damaged or disturbed in some way, these microscopic fibres get released into the air. When they are then inhaled, they can cause serious and even life-threatening damage to your lungs.
As this microscopic asbestos fibre cannot be seen, smelled or tasted, people in the past simply did not realise they were ingesting anything at all, or that these fibres never dissolve. Put simply, the same resilience which made them a versatile building tool also makes them such a serious threat to health.
Over the years, these trapped fibres can cause inflammation,scarring and damage to the body’s cells. This can then lead to serious diseases, such as Mesothelioma, lung cancer and Asbestosis, to name just a few.
The kind of people most likely to be affected by asbestos are those who have had contact with the material through work, such as plumbers, builders, electricians and carpenters, among other trades persons. Other people with a higher risk includes those who worked in factories which made asbestos products, alongside things like railway engineering. Your risk even increases if you have lived with someone who has been exposed to asbestos.
How the nature of asbestos affected its history
Asbestos was used extensively throughout the last century. One of the reasons that asbestos remained at large for so long was because,although its impact can be deadly, the related illnesses do generally take a few decades to develop. With no other physical signs of inhalation, it’s easy to see how many ended up inhaling asbestos over a long period without realising the full extent of the danger they were in.
Asbestos related issues were generally caused by individuals being subjected to the fibres before they were banned, and, in many cases, those risks were understood by those working with the material. However, there were signs of these issues long before its UK ban in 1999. Concern over asbestos actually became common in the beginning of the 20th century, with health worries being part of the conversation throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
Despite this though, it wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that restrictions became commonplace. This does not mean that they had all the information we have now, but the warning signs were there. The simple answer as to why more wasn’t done sooner is that the effect was underestimated by so many, and the fact that it takes so long for the damage to make itself known would have made it more difficult for people to grasp the severity of its impact.