What Was Asbestos Used For?

With it being so widely recognised now that asbestos can be utterly perilous to human health in the event of this notorious substance being inhaled or ingested – still killing about 5,000 workers every year – many observers today will be tempted to ask: how and why did this material become so popular in the first place? And what was asbestos used for?

Below, we’ve answered many of the pressing questions you might have about asbestos and its former life as a hugely popular construction material, prior to the complete banning of its use in the UK in 1999.

What Was Asbestos Used For?

What is asbestos, and when and why was it used?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous silicate mineral that once saw extensive use in industry. Although the material had already been mined and used for thousands of years, its popularity in the UK began to rise after the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century, with it coming to be used widely in manufacturing and construction throughout the next 100 years.

The use of asbestos in the UK for all manner of commercial applications peaked from the 1950s to the 1970s, when some 170,000 tonnes of the substance were being imported annually.

Over that time, asbestos came to be especially heavily used as a construction material, and for what would seem, putting the health risks aside, to be understandable reasons – bearing in mind that it took a while for those risks to become widely known.

It was realised that asbestos was strong, cheap, a great insulator of heat and sound, and resistant to water, chemicals, and electricity… in short, seemingly everything that one could want from an all-purpose construction material.

Predictably, then, asbestos went on to be used in the construction of millions of domestic and commercial buildings up and down the UK, where it largely remains, despite efforts down the years to remove the material from many such buildings, particularly when significant work is being undertaken on them.

What does asbestos look like?

With the asbestos products that might be used in a typical building coming in so many forms and types – encompassing the likes of asbestos boards, thermal insulation, gaskets, washers, and many other staples formerly used in construction – the question of what asbestos looks like is not one that can be answered in a sentence or two.

We have previously written extensively here at Oracle Solutions on what various asbestos products can look like, while the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) also has a useful image gallery for products such as asbestos insulating board (AIB), AIB ceiling tiles, and asbestos-containing floor tiles.

AIB, for example, might be initially mistaken for polystyrene or general plaster boarding, but tends to take the form of square or rectangular panels of asbestos worked into a building’s masonry. Asbestos sprayed coating, meanwhile, can often be more obvious, resembling a lumpy white or grey substance like concrete, that has been visibly sprayed onto steelwork surfaces such as piping.

One of the most important points to make about the appearance of asbestos is that its fibres are tiny, and therefore invisible to the naked eye. So, someone who breathes in asbestos might not necessarily even be aware of having done so – all the more reason, then, to practise the very highest levels of safety in any settings where asbestos may be present.

What building products use asbestos?

Thousands of products down the years have been known to contain asbestos, such was the material’s popularity among firms across the construction industry for many years.

Examples of building products that contain asbestos include the likes of:

  • Roof, ceiling, and floor tiles
  • Textured and sprayed coatings
  • Asbestos insulating boards
  • Loose insulation
  • Pipe lagging
  • Soffits and fascias
  • Fire doors and fire blankets
  • Electrical panels
  • Cladding
  • Asbestos cement

In the UK of today, of course, there are no asbestos-containing construction materials available on the market at all, following the complete ban on the use of the substance in 1999.

Can asbestos still be found in today’s buildings?

Despite asbestos having long ceased to be used in construction in the UK, the substance survives across many of the buildings in the UK in which it was used. If you’re currently reading this while sat in a domestic property, office, school, hospital, hotel, or almost any other type of structure built prior to the year 2000, there is a strong chance that it contains asbestos.

The tendency for asbestos during its peak period of popularity to be not just used in specific building products, but also mixed into the fabric of buildings, can make it extremely difficult to know whether a given structure contains this now-notorious material.

How can you stay safe from asbestos?

At this point, you might be thinking to yourself that if asbestos continues to be so widespread in buildings despite no longer being used in the construction industry, what can you do to protect yourself from this material’s potentially extremely harmful effects?

First, the bad news; asbestos can definitely still pose a serious danger to human health, and even in the 2020s, people continue to develop asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma and asbestosis. This is partly because asbestos-related disease often only develops decades after the sufferer’s exposure to the substance. However, it is also because there are still instances today of people being exposed to asbestos.

Demolition work on a building, for instance – or even a more minor task, such as drilling, cutting, or sawing – can potentially release asbestos fibres if the material that is being disturbed contains asbestos. Such occurrences explain a significant number of the asbestos exposure incidents that still happen on building sites today.

So, if you work in construction and are anxious to ensure your own safety on a site where asbestos might be present, you should have at least undergone asbestos awareness training, which will help you be mindful of and navigate the risks. And if you wish to check whether a given building constructed prior to 2000 contains asbestos, you will need to arrange for an asbestos survey to be carried out in order to be sure of this. In the case of some sites, the complete removal of asbestos might be required.

Sadly, the dangers of asbestos are not a thing of the past, although there are steps that those responsible for on-site safety can take to help minimise the risk. To learn more about our own complete range of asbestos services here at Oracle Solutions, and to request your free, fast, and competitive quote, please don’t hesitate to call us.

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