What is asbestos and why is it dangerous?

Steer clear of household health problems by identifying asbestos and dealing with it in our guide.

Updated

asbestos powder and a mask

Key step:

Why is asbestos dangerous? Here’s what you need to know:

  1. If you disturb or damage it, you can inhale the fibres.
  2. These can cause problems with your lungs, including inflammation and cell mutation.
  3. You could get a variety of diseases, including lung cancer.

Before we knew that asbestos was harmful to our health, it was a very common building material. Resistant to corrosion, heat exposure, and electricity, it was used throughout the construction of residential and commercial building, leaving many current business- and homeowners facing difficulties when preparing to begin DIY works. To make sure you don't cause unnecessary harm when upgrading your property, we’ve put together this guide that explains not only what asbestos look likes but why it’s dangerous and how you should approach it.

Get professionals to help identify asbestos and remove it if you suspect you have a problem. It's better to be safe!

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is natural mineral rather than a manmade product. When we talk about asbestos we are usually talking about 6 different silicate minerals with similar properties.

What does asbestos look like?

All 6 silicate minerals known as asbestos have long, thin structures made up of tiny fibrous crystals. This means it can be pulled into a fluffy-looking texture.

Check the date of your building's construction to understand your asbestos risk. Buildings made between the 1940s and 1980s are more likely to contain asbestos than those built after 1995.

What is asbestos used for?

Although asbestos is not used as commonly now, in the past it was primarily used as an insulator. It could also be used to strengthen substances such as cloth, cement, and plastic. Asbestos' fireproof and rot-proof qualities made it a 'miracle' building material which meant it was used in a lot of homes and construction projects before the dangers were known.

Why is asbestos dangerous?

When it's undisturbed, asbestos is unlikely to cause any harm to people living with it. What causes asbestos to become harmful is if it’s damaged or disturbed. When this happens, asbestos releases tiny fibres into the air which can be inhaled and lead to a number of health concerns from lung cancer to pleural thickening. As these fibres can't be seen or smelt, it's very hard to know if you're inhaling asbestos. 

How to identify asbestos

Now that we know asbestos can trigger a range of harmful diseases, it is no longer commonly used in construction. However, this doesn't help those properties that may already contain it. This is why it is so important to learn the steps to take when looking for asbestos in your home - so you can identfy if you have a problem that needs professional help to remove.

Start by checking the names of building materials and manufacturers from around your home to see if they previously used asbestos. Then, look at the following areas in your home and assess how likely it is for them to contain absestos:

  • Walls: some decorative wall plasters contain asbestos so review the type of plaster sed in your home or business.
  • Floors: if you notice your tiles have an oily appearance then they may have been made with asbestos and asphalt. Vinyl tiles were also often made from asbestos.
  • Ceilings: if you notice any grey or off-white fibres then your ceiling might’ve been made with asbestos.
  • Fireproofing, insulation, and pipes: these were often made with asbestos so check the date of installation to see if it was before or after the risks of asbestos were known.
  • External cladding: asbestos sheets were often held together with aluminium runners on the outside of buildings, and with plastic or wooden runners on the inside. The adhesive used to join the materials also tended to contain this mineral.
  • Fascias and soffits: old-style cement board products often contained asbestos.
  • Bathrooms and basements: since this mineral was heavily promoted for its water-repelling properties, it was often used for places with higher humidity.

When identifying asbestos in your home yourself, remember to take precautions such as wearing face masks and never disurpt anything you think may contain asbestos. When it comes to dealing with absestos, always bring in the professionals to avoid risk of harm to your or your family. They’ll be able to remove the asbestos without causing any harm to your household, giving you the peace of mind that your whole family is safe.

For more home safety tips, check out our checklist to reduce hazards in your home.

Originally published