Construction theory is a necessarily iterative process, folding in new technological and material discoveries with longstanding concepts and principles to create safe, more sustainable and more long-lasting designs. Over time, we have continued to refine the way we approach construction – which includes responding to hazardous materials and new understandings about them. How have we changed the way we build with respect to material hazards?
Asbestos is perhaps the most infamous among historic building materials, having permeated the public consciousness as a wonder material after industrial mining of it began in the 1800s. Asbestos is not a man-made material, contrary to common misconception; it is a mineral, that occurs naturally in the earth and takes one of six major forms. It is a fibrous mineral, comprising fibres of silicate crystal that confer remarkable electrical and fire resistance to materials that include them.
Use of asbestos was extremely widespread until the 1970s, by which major health risks had begun to be associated with the material. Today, its use is banned in the UK – in spite of which many still experience health issues, due to extant asbestos in existing builds. There are rules in place governing the removal of asbestos from structures being demolished or refurbished, while fibreglass and mineral wool insulation materials (more on which later) have replaced asbestos in new domestic and commercial builds.
Another hazardous material that has been heavily litigated since its once-common use is lead-based paint. Lead’s addition to painting served to extend the life of paint coats, by improving durability and preserving colour after coats. It also allowed for quicker drying, which appealed to domestic customers and construction businesses alike.
However, lead paint was linked to a series of health and developmental issues, from kidney problems and nerve disease to even cancer. As such, removing lead paint is particularly dangerous, where particles of lead can be disturbed and rendered airborne. Personal protective equipment is required to strip lead paint safely, in the form of gloves and face masks that prevent both contact and inhalation. Paint-stripping chemicals can also be used that neutralise the lead in the paint, rendering it safer to remove.
Fibreglass and Mineral Wool
Lastly, we come to fibreglass and mineral wool; these are materials we use in abundance today, not just as an alternative to asbestos but as useful materials in their own right. These materials are most commonly encountered as a textile, being fibrous materials produced in rolls or slabs.
They are insulative materials, used for their heat insulation and fire resistance in particular. They are excellent heat insulators, and a key constituent part of internal property insulation – whether in stud walls or lining attic spaces. They also insulate sound and are used as baffles in professional audio or sound-sensitive environments.
The dangers of such materials are known to be physical in nature, with fibreglass shards, in particular, capable of penetrating the skin. However, concerns are being raised about mineral wool in a similar fashion to asbestos – a field requiring further investigation.
Conclusively, there is a growing trend towards more sustainable and healthier building materials. As people become more aware of the health risks associated with traditional building materials, they are seeking out alternatives that are safer and better for the environment. This shift is likely to continue, as people place an increasing value on their health and the health of the planet.