The number of people who have died as a result of contracting an asbestos-related illness has reached new heights in recent years, following widespread use of the material between the 1950s and 1970s. Due to the latency period of illnesses such as mesothelioma sometimes occurring up to 50 years after exposure, it is thought that deaths caused by the harmful fibres are now reaching their peak.

Figures released earlier this year by the Health and Safety Executive revealed there were 2,523 deaths from mesothelioma in 2017, which is a cancer of the lining of the organs that is predominantly caused by inhalation of asbestos fibres. While the figure was found to be similar to the five previous years, rates of mesothelioma have nearly doubled since 1995 – when there were 1,317 cases. The figures also revealed that more than half of the deaths from mesothelioma were among individuals aged over 75, and 82% of these were men.

Any industrial building constructed prior to the year 2000 has the potential to contain asbestos, whether in the interior or the exterior. The substance, which was widely utilised in construction, before it was banned due to the health risks it posed, contains extremely harmful fibres that can be released and inhaled by people working or living in close proximity.

Even the lowest levels of asbestos exposure can prove harmful to those affected, which means people working in industrial settings that have asbestos – such as builders, contractors or teachers in schools that predate 2000 – are at a much higher risk of contracting these illnesses.

Why is asbestos dangerous?

Before identifying where to find asbestos in an industrial setting, it is important to fully understand the extent of the damage that it can cause. When materials that contain asbestos are disturbed or damaged, fibres are released into the air that can be extremely dangerous if they are inhaled. Once these fibres have been inhaled, they can cause a number of extremely serious illnesses.

These types of illness are difficult to detect and do not affect people immediately, often taking years to develop. However, once the symptoms worsen and they are eventually diagnosed, it is often too late to do anything.

Asbestos can cause the following serious illnesses:

Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, as well as the lining that surrounds the lower digestive tract. Mesothelioma is almost exclusively associated with exposure to asbestos and usually, by the time it has been diagnosed, it almost always proves to be fatal.

Asbestosis

Asbestosis is a serious scarring condition of the lung, which usually occurs after heavy exposure to asbestos. Developing over many years, asbestosis usually causes shortness of breath, and can prove fatal in the most severe cases.

Asbestos-related lung cancer

Asbestos-related lung cancer is very similar to that caused by smoking and other causes.

Pleural thickening

Commonly diagnosed following heavy asbestos exposure, pleural thickening occurs when the lining of the lung thickens and swells. If this gets worse, the lung itself can be squeezed and can cause shortness of breath and high levels of discomfort.

Identifying asbestos in an industrial building

The presence of asbestos in an industrial building will depend on the year it was built and the company that originally constructed the building – as well as any work that was carried out before your business moved in. Despite asbestos being banned from use in new buildings for over two decades, there is still a high chance it could be present.

“despite asbestos being banned from use in new buildings for over two decades, there is still a high chance it could be present”

The three types of asbestos commonly found in offices, schools, warehouses and factories include:

• Crocidolite – blue asbestos

• Amosite – brown asbestos

• Chrysotile – white asbestos

Inside a building, asbestos can be found in a number of places. We have outlined the most common below.

Sprayed coatings

Coatings that are sprayed onto walls, ceilings, columns and beams are one of the most dangerous materials to contain asbestos and can contain up to 85% of asbestos. One of the main concerns is that this product can break up very easily, making it particularly harmful to individuals who come into contact with it.

Textiles

Old fire blankets and heat-resistant gloves commonly contain asbestos fibres. It is essential that these are identified and taken out of circulation immediately.

Floor tiles

Asbestos-containing floor tiles were extremely popular, and therefore are still found in many buildings. Old tiles that contain asbestos can sometimes be found under carpets, which have been laid on top.

Asbestos insulating board (AIB)-containing materials

AIB was commonly used as a fireproofing material, but also had a number of additional uses, including:

• Ceiling tiles

• Partition walls

• Fireproofing panels in fire doors

• Lift shaft linings

• Panels below windows

• Boiler surrounds

Rope seals and gaskets

Asbestos-containing rope seals and gaskets can usually be found in gas or electric heating appliances.

Lagging on pipes and boilers

This is also considered to be one of the most dangerous asbestos-containing materials. Those who come into contact with it are at risk of breathing in fibres through the disturbance of lagging or insulation, which very easily releases the fibres into the air.

Cement water tanks

Drainage pipes and water tanks were previously constructed using pitch fibre, which is a lightweight material manufactured from wood cellulose and impregnated with inert coal tar pitch. Asbestos cement was often added to strengthen the material.

Outside of a building, asbestos can be found on:

• Roof panels

• Cement gutters and downpipes

• Soffits

• Cement flue

The risk of asbestos exposure

Anyone who worked in an industry such as building or construction between the 1970s and 1990s is at a heightened risk of asbestos-related illnesses. However, now that asbestos is no longer used in construction, those who are more at risk of exposure include people whose jobs put them at risk of damaging asbestos in any old buildings, which could include electricians and demolition workers.

In a recent survey to highlight the shocking conditions that teachers are forced to work in at schools across the country, the National Education Union noted that asbestos also poses a significant danger to the wellbeing of teachers and pupils. According to the survey, asbestos is found in 86% of schools; however, only 21% of teachers were aware that they were working in a school that contained the harmful substance.

The findings are worrying, particularly since at least 319 teachers have died from mesothelioma since 1980, with 2015 of these deaths occurring since 2001.

As a result, independent think-tank ResPublica has warned that the matter of asbestos poses a “national health crisis”, unless the government takes immediate action to make schools safer for teachers and staff. The think-tank said that an asbestos-audit is required to assess the amount of asbestos found in public buildings, schools and hospitals.

ResPublica also called for the government to commission a cost-benefit analysis for the prioritised phased removal of all asbestos from public buildings across the country. It argues that the UK should adopt monitoring techniques used in France, Germany and the Netherlands to detect asbestos fibres.

The independent public policy think-tank argued that the technology used in the UK to measure airborne asbestos fibres is far less accurate than those used in other countries. The report said: “A child inhales between five and 10 cubic metres of air per day, meaning the permitted levels of airborne asbestos in the UK can expose a child to 100,000 fibres per day, compared with 10,000 fibres in Germany.”

“the inadequacy of British asbestos regulation is so pronounced that a child can legally be exposed to 10 times as much of the harmful substance as they would in Germany”

According to the report, the inadequacy of British asbestos regulation is so pronounced that a child can legally be exposed to 10 times as much of the harmful substance as they would in Germany. There is an estimated six million tonnes of asbestos spread across 1.5 million buildings in the UK, with around 80% of schools and 94% of NHS trusts containing asbestos.

The impact of asbestos on the body

It is important to note that even minimal exposure to asbestos can pose a considerable risk to the health of anyone who has been in the immediate vicinity. Because asbestos-related illnesses, such as mesothelioma, develop so slowly, often taking years to become apparent, such conditions can be extremely difficult to detect.

Exposure to asbestos is more likely to occur when materials containing asbestos are disturbed or loosened, then release fibres into the air.

The different stages of mesothelioma

The ‘stage’ a mesothelioma tumour has reached describes how much it has spread from when it first appeared in the lining of the lungs or abdomen. Doctors will use image tests and biopsies to determine how far the cancer has spread.

At stage 1, the cancer has not spread, which means doctors can remove it with surgery and considerably extend the life expectancy of the patient. Most treatment options are available and this stage has the best prognosis.

Stage 1 symptoms

• Chest pain

• Chest pressure

• Abdominal pain

• Fever

• Shortness of breath

• Persistent cough

• Nausea

At the second stage, mesothelioma is known as an “early-stage cancer”. It has not spread from where it first appeared in the lining of the lungs, which means those diagnosed with stage 2 mesothelioma are eligible for curative treatment. In more advanced cases, however, it may have spread to the diaphragm or the surface of the lung.

Stage 2 symptoms

• Chest pain

• Chest pressure

• Shortness of breath

• Fever

• Persistent cough

• Weight loss

At stage three, some treatment options are available, which can improve the quality of life, and while they are not as likely to work, some treatment options can still potentially save the life of the patient. At this stage, the cancer has spread.

Stage 3 symptoms

• Chest pain

• Weight loss

• Pained breathing

• Fever

• Stomach pain

• Shortness of breath

At stage four, the cancer has usually spread through the chest wall, pericardium and diaphragm and invaded the lymph nodes located far from where the tumour first appeared. Due to the advanced stage of the cancer, doctors will usually use treatment to improve a patient’s quality of life.

Stage 4 symptoms

• Symptoms are more noticeable than any other stage

• Shortness of breath

• Chest pain

• Stomach pain

• Fever

• Night sweats

• Severe weight loss

• Build-up of fluid in the lining of the abdomen

Although health and safety guidelines state that if asbestos is regularly checked and is not disturbed, it poses little threat to the health and wellbeing of those who work near it, removal is still recommended. Lives are regularly devastated due to the impact of mesothelioma and other illnesses, and the safety of staff should always be kept at the forefront of operations.

Recent reports suggest that the UK is failing to take the health and wellbeing of individuals who could be at risk of exposure to asbestos as seriously as it could be, which could be causing the deaths of many individuals. It is time that action was taken to treat asbestos and its effects with the attention it deserves.