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What is asbestos?

This content applies to England & Wales

Description of asbestos.

Asbestos is the term used for a group of fibrous materials that are mechanically strong and resistant to heat, fire and chemicals. Asbestos is a mineral, mined from the earth, and is made up of strong silky fibres that can be separated out and spun into 'cloth'. Generally speaking, asbestos resists heat, acid and alkali. These properties account for its wide use.

There are two groups of asbestos materials:

  • amphibole group which includes
    • crocidolite (blue asbestos)
    • amosite (brown asbestos)
    • anthophyllite
    • tremolite (can occur with talc and white asbestos)
    • actinolite
  • serpentine group which includes
    • chrysotile (white asbestos).

Only chrysotile (white), crocidolite (blue), amosite (brown) and anthophyllite have been in common industrial use. The colours are obvious when freshly mined, but ageing and heat turns all asbestos a similar colour and only by scientific tests can asbestos be identified and classified by type. By the end of the 1970s, 95 per cent of all asbestos mined was chrysotile and it is the only type still being exploited.

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