Roger's thoughts... Breathe. A single asbestos fibre won’t kill you.

Roger's thoughts... Breathe. A single asbestos fibre won’t kill you.

Asbestos is probably one of these words that causes dread in most people when they hear it, even if in many cases they do not really know what asbestos is (what is it? It is a naturally occurring fibrous form of silicate minerals). It is quite understandable that it causes such strong feelings, as asbestos is responsible for over 4,000 deaths every year in the UK alone.

These deaths, which mostly occur by lung cancer, or by a very specific type of cancer affecting to the pleura and called mesothelioma, now happen mostly among tradesmen that have encountered asbestos in their jobs, without being aware of the hazard associated with the substance. For many years, and until fairly recently, asbestos was used in many different bulk materials. Its remarkable physical properties (heat and electrical insulation, absorption of noise and vibrations, physical strength, resistance to acid attack) transformed it into what for many years was seen as a fantastic “additive” in construction materials. It was added to cement, to floor tiles, to insulation boards, to paint, to mastic, even sometimes to concrete and cement. Over 7 million tonnes of asbestos were imported into the UK. Current estimates from HSE are that about 9.4 million properties in the UK contain asbestos and about 1.3 million construction projects may involve asbestos disturbance. Basically, all bulk materials around us are susceptible to contain asbestos.

But, if it is such a dangerous substance and it potentially can be everywhere around us, we are all in great danger! Aren’t we?

The truth is, not really. Asbestos is indeed a hazard responsible for over 4,000 deaths every year in the UK, so it is the deadly substance whose potential presence we all need to be aware of. However, and against what many scaremongers like to tell us, one single fibre won’t kill you.

Some years ago, Professor Seaton’s early post-mortem studies at the University of Aberdeen indicated that more than 60% of people in the UK had asbestos fibres in their lungs at the point of death and it was nothing to do with the cause of death. There are over some 60 million people in the UK. If 60% of them have asbestos fibres in their lungs then some 36 million people in the UK have asbestos fibres in their lungs. If one fibre kills, then all of these people would die of the asbestos-related disease. On average it takes about 30 years from overexposure to death which means we would expect some 1 200 000 asbestos-related deaths per annum. As the real figure of asbestos-related deaths is some 4,000 pa, it seems very reasonable to say that no, one single fibre of asbestos does not kill.

This means we need to take more care in planning our asbestos remediation projects and using our scarce resources wisely. Currently, because of the great social and journalistic pressures, quite often local authorities (and private institutions) spend a great deal of money and resources trying to get “asbestos-free” buildings. This often means spending a large huge amount of money, most of the times the goal is impossible in itself (as asbestos may be in the very core of the building), and we fill our landfill sites with huge amounts of waste. All this to try and achieve a goal which is quite unrealistic: once you have asbestos in a building you can never get it all out. It is unrealistic to have asbestos free buildings. It is realistic to have asbestos risk free buildings. Clearly, we are generating economic and environmental problems based on a dubious interpretation of health problems  

Rather than trying to get asbestos-free buildings, we should aim to spend our money on very well surveyed buildings, where good management plans are put in place and which ensure that everyone around will be safe, even when many of the bulk materials surrounding them contain asbestos. The first step in preventing a danger is to be aware that the danger is there. Or, using a more literary form, “know your enemies”.