Why is asbestos so dangerous?

The knowledge that asbestos can be dangerous is widespread, but have you ever stopped to consider just why this substance can be so deadly?

What makes asbestos so dangerous is the minuscule size of the individual fibres, which are too small to be seen with the naked eye. The fibres are usually between three and 20 micrometres in width. To put that in context, a human hair is normally between 17 and 181 micrometres thick.

When buildings or other structures containing asbestos are disturbed, these fibres break up, drift in the air, and can be inhaled into the deepest part of the lungs, where they can be responsible for serious and potentially deadly diseases.

Asbestos can cause the following diseases:


A type of cancer that affects the tissue covering the lungs or abdomen. This is a disease caused almost exclusively by exposure to asbestos and is often fatal, due to the time taken for symptoms to present.

Asbestos-related lung cancer

A rare type of lung cancer which bears many similarities to cancer of the lungs caused by smoking and other factors. Like mesothelioma, lung cancer related to asbestos is often diagnosed at a late stage of development, due to the slow onset of symptoms.


Caused by breathing in asbestos particles over a long period of time, asbestosis is a condition which scars the lungs and causes increasing shortness of breath. In the most serious of cases, asbestosis can even lead to death.

Pleural plaque

Another condition caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos. The lining surrounding the lungs (pleura) enlarges and hardens, exerting pressure on the lungs themselves. The squeezing effect on the lungs can lead to breathlessness and pain in the chest.

Although we are more aware than ever before of the dangers of asbestos, the substance is still responsible for around 5,000 deaths every year.

Jerry Hill, head of consultancy support – safety, health and environment at NatWest Mentor, said, “Many people consider asbestos as a problem of the past, but think again… Any building built or refurbished before the year 2000 may still contain asbestos.

“If in doubt, suspect asbestos and deal with it appropriately, it could just save your life.”

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