Historical use of asbestos in construction

Historical use of asbestos in construction

At first, asbestos was thought of as a remarkable material. It had a tensile strength better than steel; it had excellent thermal and acoustic insulation; it was chemically resistant, an electrical insulator, and it was flexible. As a result, three main types of asbestos were used extensively in the building, construction and engineering industries, particularly between 1950 and 1980in UK – blue (crocidolite); brown (amosite) and white (chrysotile’).

Many buildings built or refurbished before 2000 are likely to contain asbestos, and it can be found within bridge construction and many other structures. Asbestos can be present in sprayed coatings, lagging, cement sheets, floor tiles, Artex, bituminous sheeting, gaskets, permanent formwork, joint fillers, waterproofing systems and insulating boards, for example.

In 1920, the first death from asbestos was recorded in UK, and concerns about its safety grew over the years. In 1985, brown and blue asbestos was prohibited from use, and in 1999, white asbestos was banned.

Shockingly, asbestos is currently the single greatest cause of work-related deaths in the UK, with 4000 deaths a year being attributed to it. Asbestos fibres lodge in the lungs, leading to disease, cancer and eventually death. The time taken for symptoms to appear is long, often between 20 and 60 years, and there is no cure. Once diagnosed, it is always fatal – there is no known cure.

Asbestos is only a risk when the fibres become airborne. Once airborne, the fibres can be breathed in, whereupon they become lodged deep in the lung tissue. Careful control of any works relating to asbestos is therefore critical.