Asbestos starts life as a mineral found in certain rocks, mainly in South America. It is fibrous in nature and has fire retardant properties. Asbestos has been widely used as a building material for over 100 years. It can be found in cement pipes and sheets as a reinforcing agent. These asbestos cement products can be found in many schools, factories and homes. Asbestos was also used to make floor tiles and as insulation lagging on hot water pipes.
Over the past 20 -30 years researchers and medical opinion has united against any asbestos use at all. Asbestos containing materials let asbestos fibers off into the air. These fibers lodge in the lungs of people working and living in the building and cause a disease called asbestosis, or mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma is an incurable cancer of the lung. It only takes one asbestos fiber in the lung to cause asbestosis. Asbestos workers are the people most affected by asbestosis and mesothelioma. People who worked in construction and ship building in the 1950s and 1960s are also commonly affected.
The detection and removal of asbestos from buildings is a specialized task, which must only be carried out by licensed contractors.
The untrained individual may have suspicions whether or not asbestos is present in a material, but laboratory analysis is the only way to be certain. This is expensive, and many employers will have to be cajoled into having an asbestos survey carried out.
If asbestos is found then the removal is very expensive. Employers sometimes employ non-specialists to rip out the offending material, before even testing for asbestos. The old floor tiles or pipes can then just be dumped, without the extra expense of taking it to a licensed asbestos disposal site. While all this is happening, if asbestos is present, the air in the building is full of tiny asbestos fibers, all getting into the lungs of people working there.
There are regulations governing what kind of bags can be used to dispose of asbestos waste and where those bags are taken. All workers must be fully protected from asbestos fibers while working. The affected parts of the building will be sealed while the work is in progress.
Asbestos has been replaced as a building material, and as a filler or reinforcing agent, by glass fiber and rock wool. Both materials have many of the properties asbestos has, but are generally considered less harmful.