Despite the UK asbestos industry maintaining a voluntary ban on the import of the highly lethal blue (crocidolite) asbestos from 1970 and a similar ban on the equally dangerous brown (amosite) asbestos from 1980, the import of asbestos products continued until the UK government finally imposed a legal ban on both, and all asbestos-containing products only as recently as 1986.

However, because it may take up to 40-50 years before asbestosis symptoms appear, it can often be time critical to preparing asbestos compensation cases.

Only chrysotile (white), crocidolite (blue), amosite (brown) asbetos have been in common industrial use, which has led to the 20th century’s long and terrible legacy of the many thousands of UK workers suffering and eventually dying from asbestosis and the deadly malignant form, mesothelioma.

By the end of the 1970s, 95% of all asbestos mined was chrysotile (white), still found in homes and buildings built or renovated before the 1980s, and is now considered reasonably safe – but only if left undisturbed. Unfortunately, ageing and heat turns all asbestos a similar colour and the actual group type can only specifically identified by scientific tests.

Today, asbestos is no longer in use and substitutes do exist for all previous uses of asbestos. However, the alternative materials may present health hazards, themselves, in almost all cases.

The three types of substitutes are :

– Naturally occurring and manufactured mineral fibres.
– Naturally occurring organic fibres, e.g. cellulose.
– Synthetic plastics, both fibrous and non-fibrous.

Once again, it is the dimensions of the fibres which are equally as dangerous as asbestos. Even for non-fibrous materials, dust inhalation may lead to bronchitis or emphysema and it should never be assumed that these materials are safe. Many of these products are also mixed or contaminated with other dangerous chemicals and exposure must be prevented to potentially hazardous, uncontrolled dust.

Manufactured mineral fibres are made from glass, rock, slag or clay and are widely employed as insulation materials, amongst other uses. There is a suspected link to different types of cancers and non-malignant respiratory illnesses, and manufactured mineral fibres are known to cause skin irritation and eye damage.

The main plastic fibrous substitutes for asbestos are used where resistance to fire and friction is important. Non-fibrous plastics used for insulation purposes are polystyrene and polyvinyl chloride. Although inert in use, dust exposure will produce toxic degradation products upon combustion.

Cellulose, from wood or other natural sources, is used to enhance friction resistance. The dust may have a variety of toxic properties depending on the source. Dry cellulose is highly flammable.

Non-asbestos substitutes are subject to completely different control procedures than asbestos. They are covered by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) and Chemical Hazards (Information and Packaging) (CHIP) Regulations.