What is it?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that is very fibrous. It is excellent when used as insulation and for fire-proofing, but the fibres of the mineral can easily separate out and become air-borne. When these fibres are inhaled, they can lodge in the lungs and cause severe respiratory problems and even cancer.

There are, broadly speaking, three type of asbestos. The least dangerous kind is white asbestos which is known as chrysotile. Blue asbestos, or crocidolite, and brown asbestos, also called amosite, are the two more dangerous forms of the mineral as the body cannot rid itself of these two types of fibre. It is believed that the 'curly' nature of white asbestos makes it easier for the body to rid itself of them, as well as not being able to penetrate tissue as easily as the straighter fibres.

The dangers of asbestos

The diseases caused by asbestos include asbestos-related lung cancer (which presents differently to that caused by other factors, such as smoking), mesothelioma, a carcinoma which affects the pleural lining of the lungs and the lower digestive tract or peritoneum, asbestosis, which is essentially scarring within the lungs, caused by the asbestos fibres and pleural thickening (almost called pleural plaque), where the lung lining becomes thick and stiff, causing respiratory distress. Most of these conditions are ultimately fatal, and nearly all only appear some ten to forty years after being exposed to the asbestos.

Because asbestos was so widely used from the 1950s onwards, it found its way into all areas of life, being used in schools, homes, offices and factories before the authorities realized the dangers of having so much asbestos so close to where people worked, played and lived. Asbestos removal is still big business today, despite the fact that asbestos has not been used in any building since 2000. If it is deemed unsafe to remove the asbestos directly – sometimes scraping at asbestos coverings or insulation can cause a release of the harmful fibres into the air – it may be safely and securely covered up. This is called asbestos abatement, and it can sometimes be safer to leave asbestos securely sealed than to try and get it all out of the property for safe and secure disposal.

Sometimes diagnosing that a condition is due to asbestos can be difficult because the person will not even know that they have been exposed to the mineral as it could have been at school, at work or at home. Symptoms will depend on the length of time exposed to the fibres and the age of the person at the time. If a doctor suspects that asbestos has had a hand in the illness he or she will order a CT scan or other testing after listening to the lungs. When asbestos is present in the lungs, they will 'crackle' as the patient breathes.

Taking legal action

There have been a number of court cases involving illness caused by asbestos, with a mixed bag of results – depending perhaps, on the skill of the lawyers in each case! If you feel you have a case for compensation, find a good attorney and be prepared to sit and go through every possible place where the exposure could have occurred. If the opposing legal team can cast even a shadow of doubt that you were exposed somewhere other than their client's property you may end up losing the case and being out of pocket at a time of life when you feel quite ill.

In summary:
  • Asbestos is a naturally occurring, fireproof mineral
  • There are three types of asbestos: white, blue and brown
  • There are four main ailments caused by asbestos exposure: asbestosis, pleural thickening, lung cancer and mesothelioma