A Guide to Asbestos

Asbestos definition Asbestos: it's a naturally occurring mineral made up of small fibres, and it's also one of the most deadly substances you could be exposed to. Despite banning asbestos use for many years, asbestos is still around us, in our workplaces, our homes, our children's schools.

What You're Going to Learn:

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is the name of a naturally occurring fibrous mineral that first became popular for its strength and heat resistant qualities. Asbestos was widely used in building and construction for numerous years until it was banned in many countries because the fibres can be deadly when inhaled.

What Does Asbestos Look Like?

Asbestos can be characterised by its long fibres or bundles, similar to attic insulation. In its finished form in workplaces or in your home, it was often found in insulation boards, pipe or boiler coatings, paint or adapted plastic.

What does asbestos look like?

Asbestos fibres themselves can be as small as 0.01 micrometres and not visible to the human eye. Despite the fact most of us are aware of this "killer dust", it's difficult to actually know if you've breathed in the deadly, microscopic dust. This is why you might not realise you were put in harm's way until you become ill many years later.

The Different Types of Asbestos

Asbestos is the name of several different asbestos minerals, which fall roughly under 2 categories:

Serpentine Asbestos:

Chrysotile asbestos (known as white asbestos) is the only member of this group.

  • White Asbestos (chrysotile) - It has the appearance of curled, crystallised sheets. This is the most popular type of asbestos; it accounts for roughly 95% of asbestos use around the world.

Amphibole Asbestos:

There are 5 types of amphibole asbestos; anthophyllite, actinolite, tremolite, amosite and crocidolite asbestos. Amosite (brown asbestos) and crocidolite (blue asbestos) were the most commonly used in this category.

Amphibole and Serpentine asbestos do differ in appearance – white asbestos consists of curled crystallised sheets, whereas Amphibole asbestos is made up of thinner, straighter fibres. The types of asbestos belonging to the Amphibole group are thought to be potentially more harmful than white asbestos as the fibres are thinner and breathed in more easily.

  • Brown Asbestos (amosite) - Brown asbestos was predominantly mined in South Africa; it acquired the name "amosite" as it’s an acronym for the "asbestos mines of South Africa". Known best for its heat resistance, it was mainly used in insulation products.
  • Blue Asbestos (crocidolite) - Blue asbestos was commonly mined in South Africa, Bolivia and Australia. It is considered to be the most dangerous type of asbestos as its fibres are especially thin and long. The town of Wittenoom was Australia's only blue asbestos mine; over 1000 people died here from Mesothelioma, it now has only 6 residents and the town has been wiped from the map. Blue asbestos is slightly less heat resistant.

Asbestos: A History of Change

The use of asbestos first began to snowball in popularity during the industrial revolution, its tensile strength and heat resistant qualities making it an ideal material for building and industry. For this reason, it became known as the "Magic Mineral" during the 1800s.

But, its harmful effects weren't unknown; as long back as ancient Greece, geographer Strabo wrote of a "sickness of the lungs" suffered by slaves who wove asbestos into clothes. The word asbestos in ancient Greek means "inextinguishable, unquenchable or inconsumable".

Despite continued and increased awareness of the risks, asbestos was still widely used on ships as late as the 1980s and remains in many workplaces and homes today. You can see on the timeline the slow progress made in taking action against asbestos during the 19th and 20th centuries:

A Timeline of Key Events

Asbestos use begins in England, but doesn't become popular commercially until the late 1800s
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Dangerous effects of asbestos criticised in an annual Factory Inspector Report
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The first recorded death of an asbestos worker from lung failure at London's Charring Cross hospital by Dr Montague Murray
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Turner and Newall Ltd, world leading producer of asbestos products open in Rochdale
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The first published case of asbestosis is of the death of a textile worker in Rochdale
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The first substantial regulations are introduced: The Asbestos Industry Regulations. They come into force in March 1932
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British Medical Journal report by R Doll highlights the link between asbestos and cancer
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An asbestos register is established and a voluntary industry ban on blue asbestos begins
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The first ever asbestos compensation case is won
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Health and Safety at Work Act comes into force placing a duty of care on employers
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The Asbestos Licensing Regulations are introduced
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Regulations are enacted banning blue (crocidolite) and brown (amosite) asbestos
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A final ban on all asbestos is introduced by The Asbestos Prohibition Regulations
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The Control of Asbestos Regulations are introduced, amalgamating previous legislation
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The All Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health calls for regulations to completely eliminate asbestos in workplaces by 2035

A major turning point came with the 1931 Asbestos Industry Regulations; it marked the first legislative response made by any industrially developed country to the dangers of asbestos. Sadly, these new rules attempting to manage asbestos largely failed, and asbestos use continued to grow and people continued to fall victim to asbestos related illnesses.

The Law on Asbestos Now

At present, all 28 countries in the European Union and over 50 countries worldwide have banned asbestos entirely, with many more having restrictions in place over its use and production.

It may come as a surprise that despite being attributed to hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide, asbestos is still not banned in some countries; including the US and Canada.

As of 2013, the US Geological Survey found that around 2 million metric tons of asbestos are still being produced. The 5 countries exporting the most asbestos include Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Brazil and India.

Asbestos Related Illness

For asbestos to cause harm, you need to be exposed to it by breathing in, eating, drinking or having skin contact with the microscopic fibres. When these fibres are ingested they can result in the development of cancer and other serious diseases.

It can take many years before the cancer or disease to develop after exposure (between 15-60 years) and when they do, there's often little that can be done to help; which is why it's so important to be aware of the dangers.

The 4 Main Asbestos Related Diseases


Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that is often caused when asbestos fibres are inhaled. The fibres can settle on the lung lining (pleura) and can cause irritation and result in gene changes – this is Pleural Mesothelioma. Peritoneal Mesothelioma is where the cancer starts in the abdomen and can be caused by fibres that have been coughed up and swallowed.

Cancer Research UK report that as many as 2,600 people are diagnosed with this type of cancer each year. It's estimated that 9 in 10 men and 8 in 10 women with mesothelioma have been exposed to asbestos.

Mesothelioma is often diagnosed at a late stage and sadly, most of those diagnosed will die within 3 years. The average outlook is around 12 months according to the NHS website, there's a 50% chance that sufferers will survive past 8 months after diagnosis.

Asbestos Related Lung Cancer

Asbestos exposure can be a direct cause of lung cancer and it's estimated by the HSE that as many people die from asbestos related lung cancer as they do from mesothelioma; around 2,000 people every year.

Asbestos is a carcinogen, meaning it can cause the abnormality of a cell which can eventually cause a lump known as a tumour. Lung cancer linked to asbestos is different to mesothelioma as mesothelioma mainly affects the internal cavity holding the lungs (the mesothelium) – a distinct red flag of asbestos exposure.


Asbestosis is a type of lung disease also caused by damage to lung tissue over time following asbestos exposure. The scarring to the lungs causes symptoms such as shortness of breath, tiredness, coughing and chest pains (NHS website).

Deaths associated with asbestosis

Asbestosis, like mesothelioma and asbestos related lung cancer, can also take many years to show its symptoms. The outlook for the condition differs between individuals, for some it may not progress, but others have a shorter life expectancy and have a higher risk of mesothelioma, lung cancer or pleural disease.

The numbers of people with asbestosis have risen; in 1978 it contributed to the deaths of 109 people, in 2013 this figure stood at 516.

Pleural Thickening and Pleural Plaques

These are both forms of non-malignant pleural disease:

Pleural Thickening is a lung disease whereby scar tissue grows and thickens on the pleura, the layer coating the lungs, causing non-cancerous tumours. The inflammation can cause chest pains and problems breathing.

The HSE note that substantial numbers of people are still being diagnosed; there were 580 new cases diagnosed in 2014. Whilst this is mainly caused by exposure to asbestos, it can also be caused by infections of the lungs, injuries to the chest or other types of malignant tumours.

Pleural Plaques are small white or yellow coloured thickenings on the pleura which usually don't cause symptoms, but can for some people cause a feeling of breathlessness.

The main concern for a person with pleural plaques is that they could go on to develop a deadly asbestos related condition like mesothelioma. Pleural Plaques and Pleural Thickening are non-cancerous, but there is always the chance that significant asbestos exposure in the past will put you at an increased risk of developing mesothelioma or asbestos lung cancer.

Which Illnesses Can You Claim Compensation For?

Type of Asbestos Disease Related Disease Can you Claim Compensation?
Mesothelioma Yes
Asbestos Related Lung Cancer Yes
Asbestosis Yes
Pleural Thickening Yes
Pleural Plaques No

Unlike other forms of asbestos diseases, a 2007 Law Lords' ruling prevented compensation claims for pleural plaques, a decision that was backed by the government in 2010. However, the government has suggested a change of stance if new developments are to come to light.

Bearing in mind this is a condition often wholly caused by employer's failures to protect their staff, Simpson Millar do hope that this law is changed to allow victims fair recompense.

You can find out more about the claims process here.

Who is Most at Risk of Exposure?

The 2014 World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics show 125 million people worldwide are exposed to asbestos in the workplace, with 107,000 deaths each year due to past exposure.

Risk of exposure to asbestos

Asbestos was finally banned in the UK in 1999, but to this day, those in certain industries and professions still need protecting from asbestos at work.

At risk occupations include:

  • Shipbuilding/dock yard workers
  • Electricians
  • Engineers
  • Plasterers
  • Plumbers
  • Construction workers
  • Carpenters and joiners
  • Demolition workers
  • Vehicle body workers
  • Welders
  • Insulation, heating or ventilation workers
  • Steel workers

This list is by no means comprehensive; workers in certain occupations are at a greater risk but anyone working or living in a building built before 2000 could potentially be exposed.

Most Affected Areas in the UK

In the UK, there are areas where asbestos was used more widely. Asbestos was a key material in the shipbuilding industry, and was used extensively until the 1980s.

The HSE have looked at the numbers of mesothelioma deaths in the UK's regions. This gives us a good idea of the particular areas where more people have been affected:

Asbestos deaths key to google map

The Unlikely Victims of Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos is only harmful when the fibres are disturbed and inhaled, hence why people in construction or engineering are more likely to be at risk. But, asbestos is still found in older buildings and the implications of having asbestos as a material in our homes and workplaces has become more apparent.

Asbestos in Public Buildings

Many public buildings such as hospitals, schools or town halls will have been constructed at a time when asbestos was still popular and widely used. As these buildings age there's a chance it can be disturbed and become a risk.


In the past 5 years work has taken place at Glan Clwyd hospital in North Wales to safely remove asbestos from each of the wards. A report in 2015 also found hospital staff at leading Manchester cancer hospital The Christie had been "unknowingly exposed" to asbestos in the building.

An article in the Telegraph told the story of NHS Consultant Anaesthetist Andrew Lawson, who died aged 55 of mesothelioma. Lawson noted in a letter in 2010; "It seems that there may have been a lot of asbestos in the tunnels at Guy's Hospital, where I spent 6 years training… of 4 doctors who trained at Guy's hospital and who subsequently developed mesothelioma in the past 5 years, I am the only one left alive."


As with hospitals, many schools have been found to contain asbestos and still do to this day. A 2014 report into asbestos in schools by the all-party parliamentary group on occupational health and safety called the issue a "time-bomb in our schools", and found three quarters of schools have the substance in their buildings.

Sadly, this means many teachers and even pupils could be exposed to the deadly dust. The 2016 inquest into school teacher Elizabeth Belt's death from mesothelioma found it was caused by years spent pinning her pupil's artwork to pin boards which contained asbestos.

Secondary Exposure to Asbestos

Secondary asbestos exposure can happen when family members exposed to asbestos bring the dust home on work clothes. The children might run over to give you a hug, or your spouse might take the work overalls to bundle them in the wash; in these situations the dust can be transferred and will pose a threat.

Men are at a greater risk of suffering from asbestos related disease as they are more likely to have been working in at risk occupations; in 2013, 415 women died as opposed to 2,123 men. It is thought that many of the deaths in women could have been caused by secondary exposure.

Second hand asbestos exposure is legally recognised, and partners and children who have developed an asbestos disease this way are still able to claim compensation for the harm caused.

Secondary exposure can be caused by:

  • Contact with someone with the dust on their clothes – hugging etc.
  • Airing, dusting off or washing contaminated laundry.
  • Furniture, if the worker hasn't removed the dusty clothes.
  • Particles in the air if you lived close to an asbestos mine.

Asbestos in Your Home

If you home was built before 2000, there's a chance you could be putting yourself in danger when embarking on your next DIY project. If you happen to find anything you even suspect to be asbestos in your home, leave it well alone and seek professional advice.

Who is Responsible for Keeping You Safe?

If it's suspected that there may be asbestos in your working environment, a risk assessment must be carried out. Some employers also require Asbestos Licencing to gain permission where the working environment is a particular hazard.

Your employer is also under a duty to provide protection if you're going to be exposed. Personal protective equipment (PPE) consists of things like specialist overalls and respiratory protective equipment (RPE).

If your employer is failing to keep you and others safe from asbestos at work, you should contact your enforcing authority/local Council or the Health & Safety Executive (HSE). There are many prosecutions and fines imposed on lots of different companies by the HSE and you can visit their website and view these prosecutions (http://news.hse.gov.uk/category/topic/asbestos/ ).

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is responsible for local authorities, but they aren't the authority for everyone, they have a list of the other authorities that could apply to you: http://www.hse.gov.uk/contact/authority.htm

What If You Are Suffering From an Asbestos Related Illness?

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with an asbestos related disease, you're going to be coming to terms with how your lives are set to change and your priorities are likely to lie with making sure that you and your family are well cared for.

At Simpson Millar, we believe that everyone should be able to access the help they need to achieve this, which is why we support people making claims against employers who are responsible for their asbestos related illness.

Call our asbestos exposure helpline today on freephone: 0808 129 3320 or use our free, no obligation, online enquiry form to register for a call back to find out more about compensation for exposure to this hazardous substance.

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Gavin Evans | Partner &  Head of Industrial Disease | Simpson Millar LLP

Gavin Evans
Partner, Head of Industrial Disease

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