Types of Asbestos

A Guide to the Different Types of Asbestos

White Asbestos (Chrysotile) Chrysotile, also known as white asbestos, is a member of the Serpentine group, so-named because the fibre is curly. Chrysotile fibres are the most flexible of all asbestos fibres. Chrysotile fibres can withstand the fiercest heat but are so soft and flexible that they can be spun and woven as easily as cotton. Resistance to alkaline attack makes chrysotile a useful reinforcing material in asbestos-cement building products. Chrysotile was banned in the UK in 1999.

Chrysotile was traditionally the most widely used of all asbestos types, accounting for approximately 95% of asbestos mined annually. Like the other forms of asbestos, Chrysotile can absorb organic materials such as resins and polymers and can be used to strengthen particulates such as cement.

A worker staying safe from any asbestos damage

Applying coatings locks in dangerous fibres

Asbestos pipe wrapping was extensively used

Asbestos pipe wrapping was extensively used

Brown Asbestos (Amosite) Amosite, also known as brown asbestos, is a member of the Amphibole group. Its harsh, spiky fibres have good tensile strength and resistance to heat. In buildings, Amosite was used for anti-condensation and acoustic purposes. On structural steel, it was used for fire protection.

Between the 1920s and the late 1960s Amosite was used in preformed thermal insulation, pipes, slabs and moulded pipe fitting covers. In the UK Amosite was also used widely in the manufacture of insulation boards. The import of Amosite was banned as of 1 January 1986 by The Asbestos (Prohibitions) Regulations 1985.

Blue Asbestos (Crocidolite) Crocidolite, also known as blue asbestos, is a member of the Amphibole group. The needle like fibres are the strongest of all asbestos fibres and have a high resistance to acids.

Used in yarn and rope lagging from the 1880s until the mid 1960s and in preformed thermal insulation from the mid 1920s until 1950. The high bulk volume of Crocidolite makes it suitable for use in sprayed insulation; a product which was first manufactured in this country in 1931
Crocidolite is known to be the most lethal of all the asbestos types. The import of Crocidolite peaked in 1950; fell by 25% in 1960 and by 88% in 1970. The “import, supply and use of crude, fibre, flake, powder or waste Crocidolite or Amosite” wasn’t actually banned until the Asbestos (Prohibitions) Regulations of 1985 came into force, although strict guidelines had regulated its use since 1969.

Asbestos in Construction 

The construction industry is intrinsically dangerous, but one area that presents a real health hazard is the exposure to asbestos. Asbestos is a material that was commonly used throughout the building trade because it was strong, light and relatively cheap. However, after its peak usage throughout the 1970’s more and more people complained of respiratory problems though to be linked to it. After substantial testing it was deemed extremely dangerous and even today it’s held accountable for 3000 annual deaths in the UK alone. The diseases associated with asbestos can take a long time to develop (usually around 15-30 years), and as a result of this it was only banned in the UK in 1985. It’s not the asbestos itself that is actually dangerous, but the fibres that make up this material. Extended exposure to these fibres can lead to any of the following –

  • Asbestosis This is essentially a scarring of the lungs caused by inhaling these micro fibres. A symptom of this is a constant shortness of breath.


    Mesothelioma- Condition of the Lung

  • Lung Cancer A well-publicised life threatening illness.
  • Mesothelioma This illness is basically a combined cancer of the stomach lining and lungs.
Asbestos under microscope- note the jagged barbs

Asbestos under microscope- note the jagged barbs

The above illness is all extremely serious and could be potentially life threatening, but unfortunately there are countless more health concerns linked with asbestos. The most dangerous types of asbestos used in construction are either blue or brown in colour. The import, sale and production of these were banned outright in 1985, but white asbestos continued to be used until 1999. This basically means that any buildings generated before these dates could still contain asbestos, and it is estimated that 1.5 million properties in the UK still do. Typically asbestos will be located between walls or floors, while spraying asbestos may be applied to beams or rafters.

As already mentioned all forms of asbestos are dangerous, but added dangers can come in a legal sense. If your property has asbestos and it affects the health of a maintenance worker for example, you could be held accountable. In fact there is a great deal of legislation that needs to be highlighted relating to the handling of asbestos. This can have an impact on almost anyone including building owners, occupants, builders, employees, asbestos removal companies and managers of non domestic buildings, while increased responsibilities also involve the general public. The increased rules and regulations regarding asbestos are partially due to an EU clamp down, but as we now know this is for good reason. These regulations are changing on a frequent basis as they are constantly being updated and amended, but the most recent edition of these guidelines was published on the 21st May 2004. These guidelines are extremely detailed and well documented due to the nature of the material, but a brief overview will be provided here nonetheless.

The 2004 edition of the “control of asbestos at work” regulations states, that any person responsible for repair and maintenance of the premises in question will be deemed a duty holder. If no such person exists then the legal owner of the building will be deemed responsible, and so by technicality they will be considered the legal duty holder. A “duty holder’s” responsibilities are as follows –

  • To determine the location of the asbestos or asbestos containing materials (ACM’s)
  • To take reasonable steps to determine the condition of the asbestos or ACM’s
  • Assess the likelihood of individuals being exposed to asbestos
  • To prepare a plan that outlines how to deal with the risks associated with asbestos
  • Implement the plan, whilst reviewing and monitoring it on a regular basis
  • To provide information relating to the asbestos in the building for anyone who may come in contact with it
Asbestos can cause bad damage when breathed in

Artex ceiling coatings may contain Asbestos

As asbestos is a life threatening and lethal material, there are harsh penalties to face if the strategies listed aren’t complied with. The maximum penalty for non-compliance includes an unlimited fine or up to two years in prison. Not contacting the appropriate authorities or simply ignoring the problem is seen as a massive health and safety breach, and as we can see it is punished severely.

Sources of Asbestos

Below is a list of the most likely places you will find Materials containing Asbestos.

  • Artex - Texture coatings more commonly on the ceiling can also be found on walls. Plaster based material with added white Asbestos fibres. Used as a low cost alternative to a plaster skim coat. Providing a textured finish in many patterns.
  • Pipe lagging in Boiler rooms & insulation – Used as an insulator- Rope lagging containing Blue Asbestos fibres then covered in a plaster wrapped material – Similar to a Plaster cast used for a broken limb.
  • Bath and duct and wall panels – Cut to size from 8ft x 4ft Cement sheets containing white Asbestos
  • Corrugated roof sheeting - to garages and sheds- Commonly in 3 profiles – Standard – Big six- or Trafford sheet. Cement sheets containing white asbestos fibres

    An example of what asbestos can look like to the human eye

    An example of what asbestos looks like in its natural state

If you suspect the presence of Asbestos in your home firstly you will need to get this confirmed.

There are many specialist companies who deal with Asbestos. They will have all the training and are licensed by the government for the safe removal of Asbestos.

Some removal does not require a license – This is the less Hazardous white asbestos found in cement sheet as mentioned earlier. There are stringent guidelines and before attempting removal look at the HSE website for information. http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/guidance/a0.pdf

Licenses for removal of Asbestos

Safe Asbestos removal

Safe Asbestos removal

Essentially act as a “permit to work” with asbestos and incorporate a lot of important responsibilities. To gain one of these you will have to apply, whilst demonstrating the ability to meet the following requirements:

  • The ability to demonstrate that you have extensive knowledge regarding asbestos and your industry
  • The willingness to accept full responsibility for your company’s level of workmanship
  • The ability to present evidence of previous health and safety management systems
  • A dedication to continuous improvement
  • By meeting these basic requirements and more, you may be able to obtain an “asbestos licensing unit” (ALU) certified permit. These are essential if you intend to work asbestos on a regular basis

By reading this brief guide you should now be more aware of the dangers associated with asbestos and the practices used to handle it. There are numerous safety precautions that need to be strictly abided by, while there is also a large amount of ever-changing legislation that needs to be taken seriously. Asbestos is ultimately a life threatening material that needs to be treated with care and respect. For further information contact an experienced building contractor, or consult the appropriate legal documents outlined in this article.