What is asbestos? Where it's found and health risks

On this page, we explain what asbestos is, where it’s found and who is most at risk of developing an asbestos-related condition.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibre that was widely used in construction and other industries until the late 1990s. The three types of asbestos fibres most commonly used in the UK are:

  • blue (crocidolite),
  • brown (amosite) and
  • white (chrysotile)

Where is asbestos found?

Before its dangers were known, asbestos was often used in buildings for insulation, flooring, roofing, and was sprayed on ceilings and walls. Its use is now banned in the UK, but buildings constructed before the year 2000 may still have asbestos in them.

How do you get an asbestos-related lung condition?

If asbestos inside buildings remains intact, it poses very little risk. It’s only when it’s damaged or disturbed that tiny asbestos fibres can be released into the air and enter your lungs when breathing. Breathing in asbestos fibres can damage your lungs and their lining.

The symptoms of asbestos-related conditions take many years – even decades – to appear after the original exposure to asbestos. This means that exposure a long time ago might only show up as a condition today. Some asbestos-related conditions (such as pleural plaques) may never cause symptoms.

Who is most at risk of an asbestos-related condition?

If you worked in an industry such as building or construction, particularly from the 1970s to 1990s, you may have been exposed to asbestos. This includes ship-building, construction and insulation work, but asbestos exposure could have occurred in other jobs.

Nowadays, you’re only likely to come into contact with asbestos if it is disturbed or damaged in old buildings.

You might also be at risk if you have lived with a worker who was exposed to asbestos. They may have carried asbestos fibres home on their clothing, where family members could breathe them in.

The Health and Safety Executive website has more information about asbestos, including information on if you’re at risk of exposure to asbestos.

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