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What are the different types of asbestos and are they all dangerous?

Asbestos tiles on a roof

We often get asked how many different kinds of asbestos there are and if they are all dangerous. The short answer is that they all can potentially be hazardous to human health. Some are more hazardous than others, but all should be considered health and safety risks.

So, we put together a brief guide to the different types of asbestos.

How many different types of asbestos are there?

There are six types of asbestos, three of which were commonly used in the UK (where we operate). The three types that have been used in the UK are:

  • Chrysotile (white)
  • Amosite (brown)
  • Crocidolite (blue)

Classes of Asbestos

There are two categories of asbestos: serpentine and amphibole. Serpentine asbestos fibres are curly in appearance, whilst Amphibole fibres are needle-like. Chrysotile asbestos is the only type of asbestos that belongs to the serpentine class. The remaining five asbestos types belong to the Amphibole class.

Types of asbestos previously used in the UK

Below is a summary of the three kinds of asbestos that were commonly used in the past in the UK.

Chrysotile (white) Asbestos

Chrysotile asbestos being held

Chrysotile asbestos has loose, long, and curly fibres and has a white appearance, sometimes with specs of other colours. It is hydrophilic – meaning that it absorbs water. It was banned in 1999 in the UK – the last of the three types to be banned. It is believed to account for 95% of asbestos globally. It was predominantly mined in Canada, but other mines exist around the world.

Chrysotile fibres have extremely high tensile strength and were often spun into thread and woven into cloth. Chrysotile asbestos is also heat-resistant and has excellent thermal, electrical, and acoustic properties.

A piece of Chrysotile asbestos being held between fingers (not safe to do).

Amosite (brown) Asbestos

Amosite asbestos has light brown, needle-like fibres found in bundles and does not absorb water. It was predominantly mined in South Africa and was the second most used asbestos fibre after Chrysotile asbestos. Amosite asbestos is considered one of the most dangerous types, and its use was banned in the United Kingdom in 1985.

Amosite asbestos has amazing thermal properties and was often used to insulate pipework and for fire protection.

Crocidolite (blue) Asbestos

Crocidolite asbestos is also found in bundles, and its needle-like fibres have barbs and hooks. It has a noticeable light blue tinge. It does not absorb water. Like Amosite, Crocidolite asbestos is also in the most hazardous category. Crocidolite asbestos was also banned in the UK in 1985.

Crocidolite was mined primarily in southern Africa, as well as in Australia and Bolivia. Its use was less common due to its poor heat properties. Crocidolite was mostly used in cement products and gaskets.

What are the health risks of asbestos?

Exposure to asbestos poses serious health risks, with varying levels of harm depending on factors like dose, duration, and type. All asbestos forms are hazardous, but amphibole types present greater health risks than chrysotile. Inhalation of high asbestos concentrations over an extended period can lead to asbestosis, causing breathing difficulties and an enlarged heart, with an elevated cancer risk. Prolonged exposure to lower concentrations may result in lung lining thickening. All types of asbestos are carcinogenic, contributing to mesothelioma, lung, larynx, and ovarian cancers. Those with pre-existing breathing problems, such as asthma, have a heightened sensitivity to the effects of asbestos.

What are the current asbestos regulations?

In the United Kingdom, asbestos-related activities are regulated by the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012. These regulations make it the responsibility of duty holders to assess, manage, and monitor asbestos-containing materials in non-domestic premises. Regulation 5 mandates asbestos surveys, which inform asbestos management plans. Regulations 6-9 outline safe procedures for asbestos removal, including the requirement for licensed contractors. Regulation 10 details training and competence requirements to ensure personnel involved in asbestos work are adequately skilled. There are also stringent exposure limits (Regulations 3 and 13) and emergency procedures (Regulation 11) for the safety of those working with or exposed to asbestos.

I think my property has asbestos; what should I do?

If you suspect any material to contain asbestos, you should not be touching it, disturbing it, or putting yourself at risk of breathing in any fibres that may be released from it. Contact a qualified asbestos surveyor for professional assistance to manage asbestos in your property safely. 

How do I know if my commercial property has asbestos?

Determining the presence of asbestos in your commercial property is crucial. All non-domestic properties built before 1999 are mandated to have asbestos management plans. These plans encompass necessary asbestos surveys to identify and assess asbestos-containing materials within the premises. 

Learn More About Asbestos Management

Asbestos management resources

For further information on managing asbestos, we recommend consulting HSE’s “L143 Managing and Working With Asbestos” and “Asbestos Essentials: A task manual for building, maintenance and allied trades of non-licensed asbestos work“.

Other Environmental Inspection asbestos blog posts

Explore our other in-depth guides covering asbestos, its regulations, and management. Stay well-informed and learn how to protect your health and comply with asbestos regulations. 

 

 

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