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Why is asbestos dangerous?

This content applies to England & Wales

The dangers of exposure to asbestos.

The widespread presence of asbestos and the risk to health through exposure to it makes asbestos dangerous. Asbestos can produce very small fibrous dust particles that can cause asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma; and eventually death.

The danger arises when the fibres become airborne – due to the asbestos being disturbed – and are breathed in. The fibres are too small to be seen by the naked eye, and often there is a long period between the first exposure to asbestos dust and the onset of disease. This can be between 15 and 60 years. When inhaled, the long, thin asbestos fibres can become lodged in the tissue of the chest, and the body's natural defences may not be able to break them down.

The Health and Safety Executive estimates that at least 3,500 people in the UK die each year from mesothelioma (a cancer of the inner lining of the chest wall or abdominal cavity) and asbestos-related lung cancer, as a result of past exposure to asbestos. Annual numbers of deaths are predicted to go on rising into the next decade. There is no cure for asbestos-related diseases.

The vast majority of people now dying were exposed to asbestos in the 1950s and 1960s when the use of asbestos was at its peak. Analyses of mesothelioma deaths indicate that many deaths are due to heavy asbestos exposures in industries like shipbuilding and railway engineering in the past. However, if control measures are not adhered to, the Health and Safety Executive says that asbestos removal workers are now potentially at the highest risk, as are workers involved in the refurbishment, repair or maintenance of buildings, such as plumbers, carpenters and electricians.

Dust is created by work on asbestos that may release the fibres. Work that could disturb or release asbestos dust includes any action which scratches, perforates or otherwise damages its surface, for example DIY work, attaching items such as shelving, picture hooks or light switches, and routine maintenance work, such as that carried out by an electrician on a boiler, which may disturb asbestos present in the boiler lagging.

This means testing for asbestos must be done professionally. Under no circumstances should testing for asbestos or any work that may create asbestos dust be attempted by the occupier or someone not qualified to carry out such work.

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