The risk of asbestos exposure
Last Updated on 10 October 2023
Exposure to asbestos is more common than you may realise
Asbestos exposure is very common and means that most humans around the world have been (or will be) exposed to this harmful substance at some stage throughout the course of their life.
This could be because the mining of asbestos releases fibres into the weather system around the globe, or the extensive industrial use of asbestos over the last 100 years.
Asbestos has been a component in over 4000 building products across the built environment.
As an asbestos surveying company, we find asbestos containing materials (ACM’s) on average in 80% of the buildings we survey.
The level of asbestos exposure individuals receive can vary greatly from low levels infrequently, to extensive quantities over a long period of time. Asbestos is still the greatest cause of occupational disease and death across the planet.
The World Health organisation, WHO, state “There is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos”.
What are the health risks of being exposed to asbestos?
Exposure can come in a number of ways, the most common of which is inhalation (breathing it in). Once asbestos fibres have been released and become airborne, they can be taken into the lungs.
When in the lungs, asbestos fibres can cause scarring (Asbestosis), usually resulting from heavy exposure.
Pleural plaques can develop which are small areas of thickened tissue in the lung lining, or pleura. They typically develop 20 – 30 years after prolonged exposure.
Mesothelioma is directly associated with being exposed to asbestos, and in many cases, being heavily exposed is not required in order to develop the disease.
Asbestos related disease, Mesothelioma, accounts for around half of all deaths in the UK from asbestos, and is equally one of the most avoidable and least survivable types of cancer.
Asbestos can also be ingested as it lands on food or enters the alimentary canal through the mouth. Although diseases relating to being exposed in this manner are relatively rare.
What are the first signs of asbestos related disease?
In most cases, it takes 10–40 years after the initial exposure to asbestos before the symptoms of being exposed long-term become apparent. The degree of symptoms can vary depending on where the disease is located in the body.
Signs of asbestos-related diseases can be similar to other health conditions.
When someone is exposed to asbestos, fibres become stuck in the lungs, irritating the lung tissues and inflaming the air sacs and tubes. Permanent tissue damage happens when the inflammation persists.
Some of the most common symptoms and indicators of an asbestos related disease include:-
- breathing difficulty
- a continuous, dry cough
- chest discomfort or tightness
- When you breathe in, your lungs make dry and crackling noises
- Wider and rounder-than-normal finger and toe tips (known as clubbing)
- Fluid buildup
- Pain when swallowing
- weight loss
- muscle soreness
Smoking also significantly raises the risk of lung cancer brought on by being exposed to asbestos containing materials. Compared to a non-smoker exposed to asbestos, a smoker is up to 90 times more likely to develop lung cancer.
What are the different types of asbestos exposure?
We usually divide exposure into two main groups. Primary exposure is directly as a result of the work you are doing which may include manufacturing, transporting, working with or damaging ACM’s.
For example, firefighters, construction and maintenance workers, employees of industrial and power plants, and employees of shipyards are among the professions most at risk for acquiring malignant mesothelioma disease following exposure. These individuals frequently handle a lot of asbestos-containing materials.
There is also Secondary exposure which can arise through building or demolition work occurring around where you live or work.
This can also be caused by someone who is exposed on a primary basis bringing home work clothes that are dirty and then exposing family members.
School children and teachers can get secondary exposure from the presence of asbestos within their schools if any that exists isn’t managed properly.
How dangerous is short term exposure to asbestos?
It makes sense to be worried about the potential health implications of asbestos exposure if you believe you have been exposed to it.
However, any risk to your health from short-term exposure is often quite minimal.
So what Is classified as short-term exposure to asbestos? Short-term exposure typically refers to being exposed over many events that happen over a few days or a single, brief occurence. In general, there is little risk to your health from being exposed short-term to asbestos dust or items that contain it.
If you have inhaled a sizable number of asbestos fibres over a lengthy period of time, then you are significantly more likely to develop an asbestos-related illness.
How can I protect myself and others from being exposed to asbestos?
No medical quantification is available that determines the exact risk from being exposed to asbestos. All we know is that the greater the exposure to asbestos, the greater the risk, and for some people, a small exposure may be enough to kill them.
Knowing the potential risks of asbestos-containing products is a crucial step in reducing the risk of contracting an illness, because the risk of asbestos disease rises the more a person is exposed to it.
Many older products and buildings still contain asbestos.
Because asbestos fibres are less likely to be airborne in undisturbed or nonfriable asbestos materials, these materials carry reduced dangers.
Friable asbestos, on the other hand, is easily broken or crumbled, and disrupting the material can cause millions of asbestos fibres to be released into the air.
To prevent repeat exposure incidents and lower the likelihood of contracting an asbestos-related disease, it is crucial to be aware of potential hiding places for asbestos.
Examples of older products containing asbestos are:-
- Automotive parts
- Vinyl products
- Household appliances
- Talcum powder
Minimise the chance of being exposed to asbestos
Overall though, the key is to avoid being unnecessarily exposed in the first place, and this can be achieved in a number of ways:-
- Having asbestos surveys carried out in buildings and registering the information (asbestos register)
- Wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (P.P.E.) when working with asbestos containing materials (ACM’s)
- Asbestos management – ensuring it is looked after on a daily basis and that people are made aware of its presence in buildings
- And finally, training. Asbestos Training should be provided to those who may come into contact with asbestos as part of their work or to those who supervise them.
What to do if exposed to asbestos
First of all, if it’s a one-time exposure to asbestos then please don’t panic, because as outlined already, the risks associated with this are very low indeed. Most people will not go on to develop an asbestos-related disease.
However, if you’ve been exposed to asbestos more than once, and particularly over a prolonged period, then speaking with your doctor is essential.
It is crucial to let your doctor know if you were exposed to asbestos while working with asbestos-containing materials (eg DIY or other situations where you might have been exposed to asbestos), while visiting a construction or industrial site, or while being close to someone who had asbestos on them due to working with it. For example, they may have had asbestos on their work clothing.
Your Doctor can examine you and take x-rays of your chest
If an asbestos related disease is suspected or you are having symptoms, your doctor will examine your lungs and may request a chest x-ray. This is currently the most used method of screening for diseases associated with asbestos. They can aid in identifying early indications of lung disease even though they cannot uncover asbestos fibres in the lungs. The most accurate test to determine an asbestos disease is a lung biopsy, which finds minute asbestos fibres in lung tissue.
Your doctor or GP will also enquire about your employment background and will jot down in your personal file all information you know regarding potential exposure, such as dates, lengths of time exposed, types of asbestos, and potential levels.
Following this, they might refer you for additional testing to a lung disease expert.
When you inform your doctor of your asbestos history, it becomes a part of your permanent medical record. All of your doctors will then be aware of when to begin screening for asbestos-related illnesses and how regularly to check in with you.
Employers must adhere to regulations to prevent employees being exposed to ACM’s
The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 covers all the legal duties that employers, building owners and those in charge of maintenance in buildings must abide by.
The rules on asbestos in the UK apply to all non-domestic buildings built before asbestos was completely banned in late 1999.
Many small builders think the asbestos regulations do not apply to them as they may only work in domestic premises, but this is not the case at all.
They still have a legal duty to protect themselves, their workforce and any tenants or householders under the UK regulations.
If you have the legal duty to manage asbestos, protect your staff, contractors or premises of any kind, then it is incumbent on you to comply with the law.
Get in touch for asbestos advice
Should you need any expert advice relating to asbestos compliance or how to avoid exposure at work, then please don’t hesitate to contact us on 0800 141 2676, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or fill in the form below.
We are more than happy to give free advice to those who need it.