Discovering asbestos containing materials hidden in the fabric of any property, whether home or workplace can be a cause for concern – and rightly so. Today, asbestos awareness of the potential health risks has greatly improved since the 1960s and 70s when asbestos was in peak widespread use in British industry and manufacturing, and there was often little or no information or personal protection issued to the workforce.

While there is a real potential for exposure to asbestos materials, which can still be present in many private properties and public buildings, such as schools, hospitals and factories, the reality is that the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006/12 provides comprehensive instructions for handling, management and disposal. If both licensed asbestos contractors, building firms and related tradesmen adhere to the prescribed procedures then exposure risk is entirely preventable.

The possibility of contracting mesothelioma or other asbestosis diseases from breathing in asbestos fibre dust particles is mostly the result of longer term, frequent and consistent exposure.

The health danger was most acute for those men who worked every day with asbestos insulation products in heavy industries, such as shipbuilding, automotive and railway engineering, foundries, power plants, paper mills, construction and building.

Working life exposure

A recent case demonstrates the typical experience of men whose working lives were almost entirely spent in occupations in the north of England where they were repeatedly exposed to asbestos and in greatest danger of contracting asbestos-related disease.

A Northumberland joiner who made furniture for ships and fitted out the cabins regularly cut asbestos sheets to box in pipes and worked alongside pipe insulation laggers between 1959 and 1966. The joiner was then employed between 1967 and 1994 as a local area fire-fighter where he experienced further exposure when often having to break through asbestos lagging while attending fires at power stations, factories and ship yards.

Due to the well-known long gestation period, which can be up to 50 years from the initial period of exposure, it wasn’t until 2012 that the first asbestosis symptoms appeared and the former joiner, now aged 69, began to experience breathing difficulties and was diagnosed with the fatal, incurable mesothelioma cancer.

As a mesothelioma victim, he recalls that while employed at the shipyard, he was aware that he was working with asbestos but “had no idea of the dangers” to his health. Neither was he warned of the health risks when later employed in the fire service and didn’t wear any protection for the first two years. As a result, exposure to asbestos occurred for more than ten uninterrupted years of his working life.

Potential risk for women

The situation for women was slightly different but still potentially dangerous. Those who were most at risk of asbestos exposure on a daily basis tended to work in premises, such as schools, hospitals, factories or offices, where they could also be unaware contained asbestos insulation. Wives and other family members could also regularly breathe in fibre dust found on the work-clothes, overalls and boots brought home by men employed in occupations where they manually handled asbestos.

While it is vitally important to follow the prescribed procedures and regulations if asbestos is suddenly uncovered at home or at work, the potential for contracting an asbestos-related disease if the material is left undisturbed and securely contained and properly disposed of is likely to be minimal.

To read more about what to do if you discover asbestos in your home or workplace, click here for HSE guidance at their website.