The term asbestos refers to a family of 6 minerals, specifically silicates, which have a fibrous metamorphic crystalline structure. These minerals have long and strong fibres that are flexible enough that can be separated and intertwined.

Asbestos combines excellent physical and chemical properties, which, together with its relatively low price, meant that in the past, before the material’s adverse effects on health and the environment were known, it was widely used.

The exact characteristics of the material will depend on the type of asbestos that composes it. However, most asbestos materials have various common characteristics. Among them, the following stand out:

  • Fire resistant
  • Excellent thermal insulator
  • Resistant to the vast majority of chemicals
  • Not biodegradable
  • High resistance to abrasion and friction
  • High tensile strength
  • Very good wear resistance
  • Electrical insulator
  • Acoustic insulation
  • Very easy to treat by mixing it with cement or other products
  • Its fibres can be woven

The asbestos’s characteristics listed above, especially, its low thermal conductivity and its high melting point, have made asbestos a material used in countless products in various sectors (industrial, construction, etc.), even being present in general consumption products.

Why is asbestos a hazardous substance?

Asbestos is made up of fibres that can easily fragment into smaller ones, fibrils, which are minuscule, being imperceptible to the human eye.

The problem of asbestos, which makes it be considered a hazardous substance, derives precisely from the formation of these fibrils that, when released, proliferate in the air, enter the lungs by inhalation, and if they are not expelled naturally, they can generate various types of illness and even death.

These fibrils are also very dangerous if they are ingested or enter the body through erosion of the skin, although this type of asbestos exposure is much less common.

The health effects asbestos has on people who have been exposed to it depend on the type of asbestos, the exposure time and the amount of fibres inhaled.

However, generally, asbestos exposure can cause various diseases, some of which are considered specific to such exposure, such as asbestosis, pleural plaques and mesothelioma; and some others can be produced not only by asbestos but by other toxins as well, such as lung, laryngeal or ovarian cancer.

It should be noted that between the time of exposure and the onset of these diseases, it can take between 20 and 50 years.

This time interval is known as the latency period, and it is a time when the fibres are damaging the individual but the damage has not yet manifested.

Furthermore, it is important to point out that not all asbestos products are equally dangerous (although they are all dangerous).

The level of danger will depend, basically, on three factors: the type of asbestos, the friability (friable or non-friable) and the state of conservation of the materials.

Where can it be found?

Today more than 3,000 different applications are known. It is a material that is present in almost all industries (construction, nautical, auto-mobile, aeronautical, pharmaceutical, textile, etc.), as well as in domestic consumer products. In addition to nature itself, some rocks naturally contain it.

Although the use of asbestos has been prohibited for many years (the exact dates of the prohibitions vary from country to country), it is still present in many places (homes, schools, hospitals, public centres, ships, aeroplanes, trains, etc.) and products (electrical appliances, thermos, cloths for irons, laboratory gloves, etc.).

In this regard, the European Commission has illustrative graphics indicating where this mineral can be found.

For last it must be pointed out that in the construction sector, asbestos was widely used and is where it causes the most problems today, being present, for example, in gutters and downspouts for collecting water, false ceilings, cable insulation, vinyl flooring, pipelines, water deposits, external coatings, prefabricated buildings, façade surfaces, plugs, putties, sealants, boilers, metallic structures, fireproof surfaces, building insulation, glue, repair mastic, roads, etc.


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This article can be found in the 2021 edition of the document. Find the full publication here:

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