Environmental guidance for your business in Northern Ireland & Scotland

Asbestos - What is it?

Asbestos - What is it?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral made up of long, thin, crystalline fibres. There are six types of asbestos:

  • white asbestos (also called chrysotile or serpentine)
  • brown asbestos (also called amosite or grunerite)
  • blue asbestos (also called crocidolite or riebeckite)
  • anthophyllite
  • tremolite
  • actinolite.

Large amounts of asbestos-containing materials were used for a wide range of construction purposes in new and refurbished buildings until 1999 when the use of asbestos was banned. There are still many buildings which contain asbestos. See the page in this guideline: Where is asbestos found in buildings?

Diseases caused by asbestos

Where asbestos materials are in good condition and unlikely to be disturbed they do not present a risk. However, where the materials are in poor condition, or are disturbed or damaged, asbestos fibres are released into the air. If breathed in, these fibres can cause serious lung diseases including:

  • mesothelioma
  • lung cancer
  • asbestosis.

People most at risk from exposure to asbestos are those who are liable to disturb it during their daily work. This includes the main construction trades and maintenance workers, such as electricians, joiners, plasterers, roofers, heating and ventilation engineers and surveyors.

Ban on using asbestos

Due to its hazardous nature, importing, supplying and using all types of asbestos has been banned since 1999, with only a few specific exceptions.

While the new use of asbestos is banned, asbestos products that were installed before the ban can remain in place. You must manage and maintain any existing asbestos products in a safe condition to ensure they do not cause a danger to human health or the environment. See the page in this guideline: Working with asbestos.

Further information

HSE: Asbestos health and safety guidance

HSE: Asbestos management advice (PDF, 229K)

HSENI: Asbestos guidance

HSE: Interactive lesson - apprentices at risk from asbestos

Scotland: Healthy working lives - asbestos

Return to Asbestos topic landing page

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