Explainer: What is asbestos and what are the risks?

After figures revealed that asbestos-related cancer has claimed dozens of lives in Burnley since the 1980s, we look at the problem of the deadly substance.
An example of AsbestosAn example of Asbestos
An example of Asbestos

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous material that has been a popular building material since the 1950s.

It is used as an insulator (to keep in heat and keep out cold), has good fire protection properties and protects against corrosion.

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Asbestos could be present in any building that was built or refurbished before the year 2000. It is in many of the common materials used in the building trade, including ceiling tiles, pipe insulation, boilers and sprayed coatings.

Common uses

The following are examples of some of the more common uses of asbestos in buildings:

Sprayed coating - found as fire protection on structural supports (for example, columns and beams) - it is a high hazard asbestos product and can generate very high fibre levels if disturbed ?

Pipe insulation - asbestos thermal pipe lagging is a high hazard asbestos product

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Asbestos insulating board ceiling and door panels - AIB is a high hazard asbestos product and can generate high levels of fibres if the board is cut or drilled

AIB window panel - like other AIB, this is a high hazard asbestos product, and if in good condition should be left undisturbed

Floor tiles - vinyl (PVC) or thermoplastic tiles contain asbestos

Asbestos cement roof sheeting - asbestos cement sheeting is often found on industrial building roofs and walls

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Textured decorative coating (such as Artex) - textured coatings contain a small amount of asbestos - the asbestos is well bonded and fibres are not easily released - however, it is still an asbestos product, and as such, needs to be worked with safely

What is the danger?

Asbestos is a hidden killer that can cause four serious diseases:

Mesothelioma - 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 - 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.

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Asbestosis - 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 - 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

Removal and disposal of asbestos:

Asbestos which is in good condition should normally be left undisturbed.

Where it is necessary to remove it, this work must be carried out by a specialist contractor who is licensed to do this type of work.


You can't see or smell asbestos fibres in the air.

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The effects of being exposed to asbestos may 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 higher 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.