Asbestos is the collective name for a group of six naturally occurring mineral fibres. Asbestos causes four different diseases in humans: lung fibrosis (asbestosis) following heavy exposure, pleural disease, lung cancer and mesothelioma. Asbestos and other mineral fibres are made of tiny fibres that, when inhaled, can settle inside the lungs and irritate the tissues in the respiratory tract.
Regarding man-made mineral fibres such as glass fibre or rock wool, there is no firm evidence that exposure is associated with similar problems. There are some indications that asbestos could affect aquatic organisms in water bodies with high natural occurrence.
Function and use
Asbestos consists of needle-shaped naturally occurring mineral fibres of silicate minerals with slightly different compositions and properties. Asbestos fibres have good physical and chemical properties, such as mechanical resistance to high temperatures, incombustibility, good insulation performance, durability, flexibility, indestructibility, resistance to attack by acids and bacteria, ease of crafting as a fabric, as well as low cost.
Mineral fibres can be included in various kinds of materials such as cement or plastics, either to make them stronger or to make them fluffy.
Areas of application
Asbestos was widely used between 1945 and 1990 in various applications, such as materials for domestic purposes, industrial use and in materials for construction. In construction it has been used as insulation material, facade plates, mixed in cement materials like roof sheets and water pipes, in vinyl floor tiles, brake linings, linings etc.
These materials are still in use and may lead to exposure when tearing down old constructions.
Worldwide, the mineral asbestos is subject to a wide range of laws and regulations that relate to its production and use, including mining, manufacturing, use and disposal.
In the EU, asbestos fibres are restricted in REACH, annex XVII. The REACH Candidate List has two entries for ceramic refractory fibres. The man-made fibres are not restricted at all.
Directive 1999/77/EC of the European Union prohibited the use of all asbestos fibres from 1 January 2005 and asbestos is included in the ECHA PIC list. Although its use is forbidden, handling of the material (in demolition) is regulated by controls and monitoring actions.
More information on asbestos and safer alternatives can be found here.
The most efficient way to phase out the use of mineral fibres would be to substitute them for other materials with similar functions. Alternative materials that are used include cellulose fibres and amorphous silica fabrics.