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Asbestos: What it is and How to Identify it

Asbestos has been a subject of intense debate and scrutiny for decades but contrary to popular belief it not a strictly modern phenomenon. It has actually been known to and used by mankind for more than 4,000 years. It wasn’t until the 19th century however that it became widely used as a building material and its use continued to grow unabated until the late 20th century when information on its inherent health risks became public knowledge following a series of lawsuits.

That asbestos was the likely cause of often fatal illnesses was a fact known to manufacturers and users of the product as far back as the 1920s although that knowledge was suppressed in the interest of commerce. Following the court-related revelations, however, public outcry lead to the increasing marginalization of asbestos and eventually the outright banning of the substance in most countries.

What is it?

Asbestos is actually a set of 6 silicate minerals that occur naturally and share certain physical characteristics. They are typically long thin fibres, with each main fibre composed of millions of tiny fibrils. The 6 types of asbestos are chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophyllite and actinolite. They are commonly referred to by their naturally occurring colours blue asbestos (crocidolite), brown asbestos (amosite), white asbestos (chrysotile) and green asbestos (actinolite).

Asbestos became widely regarded by builders for its ability to absorb sound, resist heat and fire and also for its affordability. It became widely used as a form of electrical insulation for things like hotplate wiring and also as building insulation. When used to resist heat and fire, asbestos fibres were typically mixed with cement or woven into various types of fabric or mats and wrapped around hot water pipes or heating ducts.

As it turns out asbestos fibres can be released by abrasive action and other processes (including building demolition) and it is the breathing in of these fibres that causes various severe health problems including mesothelioma (cancer of the tissue surrounding various internal organs), lung cancer and asbestosis (scarring of the tissues of the lungs).

Visually Identifying Asbestos

It can be extremely difficult to definitively identify asbestos without using a microscope. That said there are certain tell-tale signs you can look for that should indicate that you may be dealing with asbestos fabric or asbestos concrete.

  • Asbestos Fabric – Asbestos fabric was commonly used around piping and ductwork. If you see a fabric-like material around your pipes or ducts and that material appears spongy or frayed it may indeed be asbestos fabric.
  • Asbestos Concrete – Asbestos was known to make concrete inflexible. As such when things like masonry screws were introduced into asbestos concrete the concrete would typically crack around the screws.

If you suspect your home or business may contain asbestos products of any kind contact an asbestos inspector or obtain one of our asbestos test kits immediately. By identifying asbestos quickly and accurately you can then devise an effective remediation strategy and set your home or business on the road to becoming a healthy environment for all.