How long does asbestos stay airborne once disturbed?

As an organisation looking to safely manage any asbestos that may be present on premises for which you are responsible, you will naturally wish to be vigilant against the risk of anyone coming into contact with this potentially extremely dangerous substance.

One of the most worrying issues with asbestos is that in the event that it does get disturbed, it can be easily released into the air, and remain there for some time.

It is thought that disturbed asbestos can stay airborne for as long as 48 to 72 hours before settling. But this doesn’t account for the possibility of even the slightest breeze causing released fibres to become airborne again, with the associated risks this can pose to human health.

How long does asbestos stay airborne once disturbed?

How much asbestos exposure is harmful?

The short answer to this question is that there isn’t really such thing as a “safe” level of asbestos exposure. This material – its use long banned in the UK – has a well-earned reputation as toxic to human health.

The emphasis, then, must always be on the safe management of any asbestos that may be present on a site for which you are responsible, bearing in mind that even a “small” level of asbestos exposure could heighten the risk of serious disease developing later in life.

Can you see or smell asbestos fibres?

Individual asbestos fibres cannot be seen by the naked eye, or smelt. As the fibres of this lethal material are 10 times smaller than the width of a human hair, it is only possible for a human being to see them under a microscope, which is just one more reason why asbestos is so perilous.

Types of asbestos fibres and their associated risks

There are six different types of asbestos, split across two mineral ‘families’; serpentine and amphibole. There is just one type of asbestos in the serpentine family – chrysotile asbestos – with the other five being in the amphibole family.

No type of asbestos can be considered ‘safe’, although some may pose greater health hazards than others. The below is a quick summary of the six types, and the dangers they can present:

  • Chrysotile. The most common type of asbestos, chrysotile was used in various products on account of its heat resistance, including brake pads, gaskets, cement and insulation. Exposure to chrysotile asbestos is thought to pose a high risk of mesothelioma, a cancer of the lung lining that has a low survival rate.
  • Actinolite. Unlike most other varieties of asbestos, actinolite asbestos is extremely rare, and was not widely used even prior to the material’s use being banned. It is, however, also linked to the development of mesothelioma in those who come into contact with it.
  • Amosite. Also often referred to as ‘brown asbestos’, this used to be the second most commonly used type of asbestos, for such applications as cement sheets and plumbing insulation. It is thought to present a higher risk of cancer compared to other asbestos types, with such conditions as lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis all being linked to it.
  • Anthophyllite. The fibres of this rarer form of asbestos – which was never sold commercially – are grey-brown in colour. It formerly saw use in products containing vermiculite and talc, such as talcum powder. Research has generally suggested that anthophyllite asbestos presents a lower risk of mesothelioma compared to amosite, chrysotile and crocidolite asbestos; nonetheless, the risk is still very much there.
  • Crocidolite. This type of asbestos is also known as ‘blue asbestos’, and is the most dangerous of all asbestos varieties. It consists of very thin fibres that can easily become lodged in the lungs if someone inhales it. There is a high risk of asbestos-related cancer for those who breathe in this asbestos, with almost one in five crocidolite miners having developed mesothelioma.
  • Tremolite. Although tremolite was one of the more minor forms of asbestos, the strength, flexibility and heat resistance of its fibres led to it being widely used in roofing and plumbing materials, as well as insulation, sealants and paints. Coming into contact with this asbestos type can bring a heightened risk of developing mesothelioma, lung cancer or asbestosis.

How far can asbestos travel in the air?

As mentioned, asbestos can stay in the air for several days, which makes it difficult to give a straightforward answer to the question of how far the fibres might travel.

Environmental factors, such as the risk of any released asbestos being disturbed again by human interference or even the wind, will doubtless affect how far the fibres can travel. This is all the more reason for anyone needing to manage asbestos to take this task extremely seriously.

What to do if asbestos is disturbed

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) urges those who discover materials that they believe to be asbestos to immediately cease any work that they may be doing on the site, and to put up a warning sign to help prevent anyone else from entering the affected area.

The suspected asbestos should be reported to whoever is responsible for the premises, so that arrangements can be made for a sample of the material to be analysed.

In the event of the known or suspected asbestos actually being disturbed, emergency procedures should be put in action. These should include warning any potentially affected individuals, cleaning up any dust and debris, and ensuring that anyone who isn’t wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) leaves the affected area immediately.

How do we monitor asbestos in the air?

If you are concerned about asbestos potentially lingering in the air at the site for which you are responsible, here at Oracle Solutions, we can provide the complete asbestos air testing service.

This service – also sometimes referred to as asbestos air monitoring – involves highly trained and certified analysts visiting the affected area and using specialist equipment to take samples of the air, so that they can be analysed under a microscope. This enables analysts to determine how much asbestos is present in the air at the given location.

Depending on the nature of your site and the work that needs to be undertaken, our team could have the asbestos air sample taken within hours, and the testing complete within a few business days, to help give you quick reassurance about the risk posed by any asbestos on your property.

For further information on this service and to request a competitive quote from our asbestos consultants, please do not hesitate to contact the Oracle Solutions team today.