Seven facts about asbestos: the silent killer

Asbestos kills thousands of people in the UK each year – but there remain a lot of myths about the substance.

At Browell Smith & Co, we’ve heard almost everything there is to hear about asbestos – when and where it was used, the ways in which people were exposed, and the devastating effects in can have on people’s health and lives.

More people die from asbestos exposure than car accidents

Asbestos is still killing an average of over 2,000 people each year in the UK; by 2050, it’s estimated that it will have killed around 91,000 people in the UK alone. In 2015, the latest figures available, there were just over 1,700 deaths on our roads.

Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral

Actually, it’s a collective term for six minerals, which all have heat and flame-resistant properties. The best known, and most commonly used, are Chrysotile, Amosite and Crocidolite, known as white, brown and blue asbestos respectively. There are three other kinds – Tremolite, Anthophyllite and Actinolite – but these are not used industrially.

Blue is generally considered to be the most dangerous asbestos, followed by brown. However, none of them is ‘safe’ and all should be treated as highly dangerous if found.

This is blue asbestos – Crocidolite – in its natural form:

00054 3 cm crocidolite riebeckite


It is still mined in several parts of the world

Incredibly, there is still a global asbestos industry, notably in Russia, China, Brazil and Kazakhstan. The Russian town of Asbest, population around 84,000 people, is home to the world’s largest Chrysotile mine, which is half the size of Manhattan island.

There is an excellent – but bleak – article about the town of Asbest in the NY Times, here. The local trade association chairman, Vladimir A. Galitsyn, said he ‘considers asbestos to be safe’ and ‘does not see any problem’ with the substance.

For the avoidance of doubt: he’s wrong.

Soviet-mined asbestos, from the early 1980s:

Russian made asbestos, after 1983


Asbestos has been used for thousands of years

Although Asbestos is strongly associated with industry in the 20th century, there is evidence that it was used in Finland, around 2,500BC. It was later used by the Roman and Greek empires, who recognised its fire-resistant qualities.

Early asbestos mining in Quebec, circa 1870:


It’s only dangerous in powdered/damaged form

Health problems are caused when asbestos is inhaled, and its fibres remain in the lungs. It is therefore at its most dangerous when it is in its original fibrous form, or when it is damaged and particles are breaking off.

The majority of industrial workers who were exposed to asbestos historically, were exposed to the powder that was mixed to make heat- and fire-proof insulation and lagging.

However, many people have been exposed because they have mishandled damaged or broken asbestos.

Asbestos has been found in some unexpected products

We have mentioned in a blog before about Asbestos being used as fake snow, but it has also found its way into toothpaste. The abrasive qualities of the fibres helped the toothpaste do its job.

Latency period

Asbestos is known as the silent killer because of its long latency period. That means that sometimes several decades can pass before symptoms become known. Browell Smith & Co is currently working on behalf of a man who was originally exposed 65 years before he was diagnosed.

Bauer Elementary (ASBESTOS-2)


If you believe you have asbestos in your building at home or at work, stay well away from it and consult a specialist. It must not be handled by amateurs.

If you believe you have developed an asbestos-related disease, then seek medical help immediately. Once diagnosed, if you were exposed to asbestos while at work, you may be entitled to compensation, in which case our industrial illness team should be able to help.

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