asbestos today - the consequences

The situation today

Sad - it took about 75 years from the (recognition) of asbestosis as a disease caused by asbestos to the final ban of asbestos products throughout Europe.

In 1930, however, asbestosis was nothing more than a "normal dust lung", as was common among miners in coal mining. Or a silicosis, as it occurred in people living near active volcanoes. The fact that asbestos fibres can cause cancer was not recognised until much later. Bitter: People with dust lung or asbestosis suffocated before they could develop cancer.

In the meantime, tons of asbestos have been diligently imported, processed, processed and installed. It was cheap, fireproof, chemically resistant and easy to process. It is estimated that in Germany alone around 30 million tons of asbestos products are still used today. Unfortunately, the University of Constance is no exception - just like most other universities or public buildings in Germany. So it will certainly take a few more days before this mess is cleared up. Not to mention the mass of hazardous waste classified as dangerous...

Long-term effects

[Translate to Englisch:] GHS Krebserregend

Dust lung and asbestosis are quite "short-term" diseases that occur with an extremely high dust or fibre concentration in the air we breathe. Nevertheless, the fibres had to be inhaled in these high concentrations for many years. We are talking about billions of particles per m3 of breathing air for many hours a day - and for many years.

Other typical diseases caused and recognised by asbestos are lung cancer and mesothelioma, a cancer of the peritoneum. But even here, extremely high concentrations (millions of fibres per m3 of breathing air) over many years are necessary to cause such diseases with a certain probability. Smokers are much more likely to develop lung cancer. And then it is not clear whether asbestos or smoking alone is/was responsible. The asbestos industry blamed the smokers, the cigarette industry did it exactly the other way round.

And another dilemma: The first symptoms of a disease appear many years after exposure - around 30 to 50 years. Then asbestos is hardly detectable.

Recognition by accident insurance funds

The accident insurance funds only recognise asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma as occupational diseases if the person concerned can prove 25 fibre years.

One fibre year is the exposure to more than 1 million fibres per m3 of breathing air over 8 hours a day for at least 240 working days a year.

Detectability and limit values

Today, analytical methods are so advanced that asbestos can be detected relatively reliably from a fibre concentration of approx. 100 fibres per m3 of air. We have seen that the detection can be quite difficult due to the high risk of confusion.

The following guideline and limit values are currently used in indoor applications:


  • Products with < 0.008 % are considered asbestos-free.
  • Products with > 0.1 % are regarded as hazardous substances.
  • Asbestos is considered weakly bound in products with a density of < 1 t/m3
  • Asbestos in products with a density > 1,4 t/m3 is considered to be firmly bound
  • Classification according to fiber behavior everything in between > 1 t/m3 and < 1.4 t/m3
  • Indoor guide value: 0 fibres per m3

Limit values in user protection:

    < 500 fibres per m3 (measured value) and 1,000 fibres per m3 as statistically calculated upper limit of the 95 % acceptance range (after refurbishment)
    < 1,000 fibres per m3 (during renovation to protect third parties)

Limit values in occupational health and safety (work with products containing asbestos):

    < 10,000 fibres per m3: "Working with low exposure".
    < 100,000 fibres per m3: "Working on a small scale".
    > 100,000 fibres per m3: "extensive work".
    > 1,000,000 fibers per m3: Indicative value for the calculation of a fibre year and for recognition as an occupational disease.

This means that for indoor users, a load of up to 500 fibres/m3 is considered harmless, and even up to 1000 fibres during a renovation measure.

Looking at the limit values for occupational health and safety, the limit values for users* are very strict and are many orders of magnitude below the exposure levels that can lead to cancer or even asbestosis. However, time is not taken into account in the above-mentioned limit values. These limit values apply to one-off exposure as well as to daily exposure.

[Translate to Englisch:] Skala der Asbest Grenzwerte © HH Uni KN

Conclusion - Don't panic!

[Translate to Englisch:] 3D Figuren, Fragezeichen © verändert CC0

Now you know quite a lot about the nature and origin of asbestos - and what it can do.

Caution is called for - no doubt about it. But panic is not indicated either: Asbestos fibres can be found in nature and in the air we breathe. Not many, but they are there, on average around 100 - 200 fibres / m3 of air. They come from the rocks of the earth's crust, from old brake linings, from old building materials, etc. Just like thousands of other pollutants to which we are exposed every day.

Our body can protect itself
Fortunately, our body has a whole armada of defence and repair mechanisms - and most of them function very reliably. Every day! Only sometimes (extremely rarely) just not. Seen this way, however, one cigarette or one glass of red wine or one of the countless environmental toxins to which we are exposed every day can also be responsible. Then honestly count the many unhealthy foods among them.

The stupid thing about asbestos is that the effects will only become noticeable many years, even decades later. Only long-term effects are known - and too little time has passed to assess the effects of recent building sins.

We only know the long-term effects of intensive work with asbestos and products made from it. We are talking about those who had to deal with extremely high doses of asbestos fibres in the breathing air (> 1 million / m3) every day for years or decades.

Nothing should be trivialized here - on the contrary - we want to sensitize. But the orders of magnitude also play a role here. Will we die sometime? Probably. At the latest at the end of life. Will asbestos be the cause? Extremely unlikely.

And another good news: the pollutants will be remediated. Unfortunately, this will not happen overnight - but it will happen. Many committed people at the university and from outside are currently working on the problem.