The Risks Of Asbestos To Your Health

The information on this page contains public sector information published by the Health and Safety Executive and licensed under the Open Government Licence

Why is Asbestos Dangerous?

  • Asbestos still kills around 5000 workers each year, this is  more than the number of people killed on the road.
  • Around 20 tradesman die each week as a result of past exposure
  • However, asbestos is not just a problem of the past. It can be present today in any building built or refurbished before the year 2000.

When materials that contain asbestos are disturbed or damaged, fibres are released into the air. When these fibres are inhaled they can cause serious diseases. These diseases will not affect you immediately; they often take a long time to develop, but once diagnosed, it is often too late to do anything. This is why it is important that you protect yourself now.

Asbestos can cause the following fatal and serious diseases:

Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a cancer which affects the lining of the lungs (pleura) and the lining surrounding the lower digestive tract (peritoneum). It is almost exclusively related to asbestos exposure and by the time it is diagnosed, it is almost always fatal.

Asbestos-related lung cancer

Asbestos-related lung cancer is the same as (looks the same as) lung cancer caused by smoking and other causes. It is estimated that there is around one lung cancer for every mesothelioma death.

Asbestosis

Asbestosis is a serious scarring condition of the lung that normally occurs after heavy exposure to asbestos over many years. This condition can cause progressive shortness of breath, and in severe cases can be fatal.

Pleural thickening

Pleural thickening is generally a problem that happens after heavy asbestos exposure. The lining of the lung (pleura) thickens and swells. If this gets worse, the lung itself can be squeezed, and can cause shortness of breath and discomfort in the chest.

Am I at risk?

Workers involved in refurbishment, maintenance and other similar trades, could be at risk of exposure to asbestos during their work. This includes:

  • Heating and ventilation engineers
  • Demolition workers
  • Carpenters and joiners
  • Plumbers
  • Roofing contractors
  • Painters and decorators
  • Plasterers
  • Construction workers
  • Fire and burglar alarm installers
  • Shop fitters
  • Gas fitters
  • Computer and data installers
  • General maintenance staff eg caretakers
  • Telecommunications engineers
  • Architects, building surveyors, and other such professionals
  • Cable layers
  • Electricians

This list does not include all occupations at risk from potential exposure to asbestos.

When am I most at risk?

You are most at risk when:

  • the building you are working on was built before the year 2000
  • you are working on an unfamiliar site
  • asbestos-containing materials were not identified before the job was started
  • asbestos-containing materials were identified but this information was not passed on by the people in charge to the people doing the work
  • you haven’t done a risk assessment
  • you don't know how to recognise and work safely with asbestos
  • you have not had appropriate information, instruction and training
  • you know how to work safely with asbestos, but you choose to put yourself at risk by not following proper precautions, perhaps to save time or because no one else is following proper procedures

Remember

  • you can't see or smell asbestos fibres in the air
  • the effects of being exposed to asbestos take many years to show up - avoid breathing it in now
  • people who smoke and are also exposed to asbestos fibres are at a much greater risk of developing lung cancer
  • asbestos is only a danger when fibres are made airborne and breathed in
  • as long as the asbestos is in good condition and it is located somewhere where it can’t be easily damaged then it shouldn’t be a risk to you

Where might you find asbestos?

Some of the places where you may find it can be found in our residential and industrial building examples.

The section on ‘Managing and working with asbestos’ provides further information on working with asbestos.