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The widespread use of chrysotile asbestos and its legacy of disease

Chrysotile was historically the most common type of asbestos to be used by manufacturers around the world. Also known as white asbestos, it is part of the Serpentine family and has a different composition to crocidolite and amosite.

It can still be found in large quantities today, despite being banned in the UK in 1999. The substance was used in many hundreds of household items, as well as building materials such as asbestos cement.

How do chrysotile fibres differ from other forms of asbestos?

The fibres are softer than those in the amphibole group (brown and blue asbestos). They are curvy and less brittle, and this flexibility made them useful in the manufacture of fire-resistant clothing, fire blankets, and other types of protective work wear.

It is said the fibres are more readily expelled by the body if inhaled, when compared with their needle-like counterparts in the amphibole family. Having said that, chrysotile asbestos poses a serious health risk, and is the cause of many illnesses including pleural mesothelioma.

Malignant pleural mesothelioma aggressively attacks the outer lining of the lungs, and unfortunately life expectancy for patients is often only months. The long latency period of asbestos disease means that people may not be aware they have an asbestos-related illness for several decades – sometimes up to 60 years from the initial exposure.

Why was white asbestos so useful in manufacturing?

Chrysotile has a very high tensile strength, which combined with its flexible nature, made it useful for textile-based products. Its high resistance to heat and thermal insulating properties also provided fire resistance for industrial and commercial buildings.

The entertainment industry used the substance for acoustic purposes, as well as for fire-proofing and insulation. Theatre curtains commonly contained chrysotile, as did flooring and wallboards in theatres and cinemas.

Where else was chrysotile used?

One of the main products to contain chrysotile was asbestos cement. This is generally considered to be safe if intact as the cement bonds the asbestos particles together, minimising the likelihood of fibre release.

This low friability means that handling asbestos cement products can sometimes be graded as non-licensed work if the product remains intact. If not, the Health and Safety Executive may class it as notifiable non-licensed work (NNLW).

The widespread use of chrysotile in building and household materials means that significant amounts of this type of asbestos remain today. Among other products, it can be found in:

  • Water tanks
  • Asbestos insulation boarding
  • Ceiling and floor tiles
  • Partition walling
  • Pipes
  • Gaskets
  • Fire blankets
  • Gutters and downpipes
  • Soffits
  • Roofing sheets
  • Roofing shingle
  • Chrysotile was also used by the automotive industry to make brake linings, clutches, brake pads and gaskets.

Although the import, export, and use of chrysotile have been banned in many countries, this type of asbestos remains a standard addition to construction and other materials in numerous developing countries.

Image attribution

By Eurico Zimbres (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons