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26 August 2014 Leave asbestos handling to the professionals

There was a sharp decline in the use of asbestos – a highly dangerous substance – from the 1970s and it was phased out of construction by the 1980s.

Asbestos is a group of six naturally occurring fibrous minerals, with six primary sub-classifications: chrysolite, crocidolite, amosite, anthophyllite, tremolite and actinolite. Chrysolite and amosite asbestos are the most common.

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Asbestos fibres are microscopic but exceptionally durable and resistant to fire and chemical reactions. These properties made it a desirable product for a range of commercial and industrial applications. Strength and resistance to heat understandably made asbestos a popular material for roofs, guttering, ceilings and even garden pots.

But the product is a known human carcinogen and nowadays it is under the spotlight for all the wrong reasons – its toxicity and direct link to lung and respiratory health conditions. It is precisely the fibres’ durable properties that makes asbestos a desirable and a hazardous material. The microscopic fibres are easily inhaled, latching on to the lining of the lungs and internal tissue. Because of their rigidity, they are not easily expelled.

Geoffrey Jäck, managing director of Indawo, a registered and approved asbestos contractor, warns that excessive and prolonged inhalation of asbestos fibres will lead to health complications.

“Asbestos is not a safe substance and there is no safe level of exposure either. It is always best to seek the advice of a registered and approved asbestos contractor if you need to remove it,” he says.

“Asbestos was used in a number of applications on construction sites, notably roofing and rainwater gutters and downpipes. It is important to note that it is the inherent danger associated with asbestos that makes this substance a health hazard. Today strict laws govern the handling of asbestos making it vital to use a registered and asbestos contractor. Failing to comply with the law relating to asbestos handling can result in severe fines and even imprisonment.”

He says that stable asbestos does not necessarily pose an immediate threat. It is when asbestos begins to deteriorate that it becomes dangerous. When fibres are released into the air, a result of degradation, demolishing, removing or refitting, they become a risk to everyone near the site. In fact, asbestos fibres can be carried some distance in the Western Cape high winds, substantially increasing the area of risk.

Asbestos fibres pose the biggest threat when inhaled over a prolonged period of time. Three major lung illnesses can be attributed to asbestos exposure:

Lung cancer associated with tobacco use can be exacerbated by exposure to asbestos.

Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer but is rare. This disease attacks the lungs and the inner body’s cavity lining or mesothelium and is directly attributed to asbestos exposure.

Asbestosis, a degenerative, progressive non-malignant long-term respiratory condition, can represent a precursor to the onset of mesothelioma.

Jäck says that asbestos handling must be carried out by registered and approved asbestos contractors.

“When asbestos is in a good condition it is not usually a hazard – damaged asbestos is. Anyone near damaged asbestos can inhale fibres and years later become a victim of exposure to this dangerous substance.”

Everyone is at risk including construction workers, demolishing teams, factory workers, manufacturing staff, school teachers and children where the school still has asbestos roof sheeting and gutters, old age homes, office workers and more.

Jäck says that a building with asbestos in its structures needs an asbestos management plan. This should detail the maintenance and handling required for asbestos.

“Never attempt to handle asbestos. It is advisable to call in a registered and approved contractor.”

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