Asbestos is a mineral formed by a natural process, and is made up of tiny, microscopic fibres. These flexible fibres are resistant to electricity, heat and corrosion, making them a useful mineral used in construction.
However, inhalation of asbestos fibres can be harmful. Workers in the construction, waste management, and environmental protection agencies are more susceptible to health risks from long-term inhalation of asbestos fibres.
In this article, we will look at the dangers of asbestos and how you can safely protect yourself when working with it.
What Are the Dangers of Asbestos?
Inhalation of asbestos fibres can increase the risk of diseases such as:
- Asbestosis: a lung disease caused by inhalation of asbestos fibres
- Pleural effusion: excess fluid between the layers of tissue outside the lung, otherwise known as ‘water in the lungs’
- Pleural plaques: thickening of the lining of the lungs
- Pleurisy: inflammation of the tissue between the lungs and the chest
- Mesothelioma: a rare cancer
Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that occurs inside the tissues that line the body’s internal organs, such as the lungs, heart, and stomach. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, around 800 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma in Australia each year, making the country one of the highest reported incident cases in the world.
Although asbestos can be dangerous to your health, understanding asbestos and having a safe plan to manage it can decrease risk significantly.
Why Is Asbestos Dangerous?
Asbestos can be dangerous because of its small fibrous particles which the naked eye cannot see. Inhalation is the primary way asbestos enters the body, and research has shown that smoking can exacerbate asbestos-related diseases by up to 80 times more.
However, avoidance of asbestos is not always feasible. Many people are exposed to asbestos daily, which may not lead to asbestos-related diseases. This is because small particles of asbestos around us pose little threat.
One of the biggest myths of asbestos particles is that being near them can cause health problems. If left undisturbed, undamaged, and sealed, asbestos can be harmless. It’s only when the asbestos deteriorates or is disturbed that it releases fibre particles that are inhaled.
Hence, you should not panic if your workplace or home has asbestos. Instead, you should determine how much asbestos you are being exposed to and if it is at a dangerous level.
How Much Asbestos Exposure Is Dangerous?
Both short-term and long-term exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma, but its degree of severity varies based on a few factors.
Short-term exposure is exposure to asbestos that’s only for a few days. For example, doing a one-off renovation or moving asbestos for a few days is unlikely to result in any health risk. However, while light, short-term exposure might not cause disease, you should know that asbestos exposure can accumulate for many years.
Besides that, an extreme burst of short-term asbestos exposure can also cause risks. For example, if you’re exposed to toxic fumes from a damaged building caused by fire or floods, you might have an increased risk of asbestos-related disease.
Long-term exposure is considered a heavy and prolonged exposure to asbestos, and it is a likelier cause of asbestos-related health issues. Studies show that up to 10% of people with long-term asbestos exposure, either at work or at home, will develop mesothelioma. Hence, individuals whose work involves repairs, renovations, and maintenance have a higher risk of exposure and may not show symptoms until 20 to 30 years later.
Family members of workers who work with asbestos may also be at risk, as the asbestos can stick to the worker’s clothes as they return home. This condition is otherwise known as secondhand asbestos exposure.
Most Dangerous Types of Asbestos
All types of asbestos are dangerous when inhaled, but some asbestos can be more toxic than others. Here are the common types of asbestos:
Also known as blue asbestos, crocidolite asbestos is mainly used for commercial products because of its heat resistance. Crocidolite is known as one of the most dangerous types of asbestos.
Otherwise known as white asbestos, this type is most frequently used in walls, ceilings, and roofs.
This brown-coloured asbestos is commonly used in pipe and thermal insulations. They are also found in cement sheets and ceilings.
This asbestos can range from brown to yellow and is mainly used in cement and insulation materials.
Tremolite and Actinolite
Generally found in grey, brown, or green in colour, tremolite and actinolite is mainly used in sealants, paint, and insulation.
How to Deal With Asbestos Safely
Handling any type of asbestos can be potentially dangerous, so here are some tips on doing it safely.
Tip 1: Identify asbestos using the microPHAZIR™ AS Asbestos Analyzer
Before you begin work, you must verify that the substance you’re working with is asbestos. This will ensure that you take the necessary precautions to protect yourself and those around you.
While asbestos fibres cannot be seen with the naked eye, there’s no need to perform time-consuming lab analysis before your work. Instead, you can now use tools such as the microPHAZIR AS™ Asbestos Analyzer to screen and analyse all six types of asbestos in seconds.
Tip 2: Wear suitable Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Once you have identified that the substance you’re working with is asbestos, you should proceed with caution and use the appropriate PPE. In most cases, you should be wearing coveralls, respirators, and gloves in most cases. Your PPE should also be disposable, and if possible, avoid wearing wool or any other material that can attract fibres or dust.
Tip 3: Ensure you work in proper surroundings
Assess the situation on where you work. If you’re working indoors, ensure that the area is as ventilated as possible. You can also cover the floors and furniture with plastic sheets to stop any dust or harmful fibres from sticking to it. If you’re working outdoors, close all windows and doors to prevent the fibres from reaching in, and do not work with asbestos on a windy day.
Tip 4: Clean-up after handling asbestos
You should clean the area by vacuuming or dry sweeping the area. Keep dust and debris damp with water, double bag any waste you have, and decontaminate all materials used during the work. Once you’ve cleaned the area, carefully remove your disposable PPE and dispose of it by double bagging the item.
Working with asbestos may pose a health risk, but with the right tools to identify it, you’ll be able to work around it safely. If you’re in the construction, environmental protection, or waste management industry, contact us to find out how you can instantly test and determine asbestos in materials with the microPHAZIR AS™ Asbestos Analyzer.