Skip navigation


Asbestos threads are very durable and can withstand very high temperatures. In previous years, asbestos was used as a fire retardant, thermal insulation and in various industries. When working with asbestos, needle-shaped or filamentary asbestos dust is formed. This dust is harmful to health and its use is banned in the European Economic Area.

What is Asbestos?

The word “asbestos” comes from the Greek and means indestructible. It is a synonym for filamentous crystalline silicate minerals that have varied structures and properties. The most common is chrysotile (white asbestos), which accounts for 90% of the world’s asbestos production. Other common types are crocidolite (blue asbestos), amosite (brown asbestos), anthophyllite, tremolite and actinolite.

The crystalline structure of asbestos makes it possible to split it lengthwise, but the threads are much stronger lengthwise and this is one of the characteristics of asbestos threads. If an asbestos particle is to be considered a thread, the length of the thread must be at least three times the width.

Asbestos is extracted from quarries in areas where there is a lot of it and from there it is transported for further processing to factories where it is crushed and the threads separated and cleaned before they are sold as additives in various goods.

Asbestos threads are very durable and can withstand very high temperatures. In previous years, asbestos was commonly used as a fire retardant, thermal insulation and in various industries where work is carried out with high temperatures.

When working with asbestos, needle-shaped or filamentary asbestos dust is formed. It is this dust that is dangerous to health. Many dust particles are very small and light and can float around for many days, The size and shape of the threads affect how well they are able to enter the body.

Asbestos as a mineral is mostly not found in Icelandic nature.

Known For a Long Time

Asbestos, and its properties, have long been known. Before the Industrial Revolution, however, it was rarely used and expensive. In ancient times, one of the most famous mines were in Cyprus. During the Industrial Revolution around 1880, the use of asbestos in thermal insulation for steam engines increased significantly. When production of metal vehicles instead of timber started, better insulation was needed, and asbestos was well suited for this.

During World War II, asbestos was widely used in various machinery, ships, and other vehicles in both England and the United States. After the war, the use of asbestos increased steadily and around 1970, asbestos was used in thousands of different products. Examples of materials or products that contain asbestos are various building materials such as roof coverings, wall coverings, materials in fire protection walls, flooring, plumbing and thermal insulation. The amount of asbestos in them varies greatly from product to product, from just a few percentage points up to half the material weight.

Asbestos is still used in large quantities in the world, not least in Russia, East-Asia and South-America.

Controlled Use

In the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, the effects of asbestos on health were not generally known and the use of asbestos was not subject to any restrictions. From the 1880s onwards, there were indications of health hazards that could be caused by asbestos. Around 1935 it was known that those who work with asbestos are more prone to lung cancer and around 1955 it became clear that asbestos is a carcinogen. The use of asbestos, however, continued to a large extent, not least because of its economic significance and no attempt was made to limit its use until the 1970s. In 1983, the first Icelandic regulation restricting the use of asbestos was issued.

The danger that comes with asbestos is by no means ancient history because large amounts of asbestos are still found in buildings, machinery and boats that sooner or later need to be demolished or repaired. This fact places the long-term requirements on governments and companies that there are rules in place that can be referred to in such cases.

The most important factor in determining the risk of asbestos contamination is the amount of asbestos fibers in the material and how easily they are released and turned into dust. Asbestos fibers can be released from any product that contains the substance and form asbestos dust, but the risk of dust formation increases when the product is damaged.

Inhalation of asbestos dust can cause diseases such as asbestosis and cancers of the lungs, pleura and elsewhere. Diseases caused by asbestos have a long gestation period and might not even appear until after 15-40 years. It is not possible to define a safe minimum criteria for asbestos contamination and therefore all contamination from asbestos should be prevented.


On 1 January 2005, a general ban on the use of asbestos in the European Economic Area came into force.

Today, the import, production or use of asbestos is prohibited, so the only permitted activity with asbestos is to remove or dispose of it, as well as to carry out the necessary maintenance.

When asbestos needs to be removed, the type and form of asbestos varies. Only those who have the knowledge and certifications to do the work may remove asbestos from buildings or other places. The places where asbestos demolition work is taking place must be clearly marked. The asbestos is then disposed of in consultation with the municipal health authority. AOSH holds regular training courses for those who work in the demolition of asbestos. The organization is also responsible for issuing operating permits for asbestos jobs, provided that the application meets the conditions required. Application forms for permits for the treatment of asbestos and regulations on asbestos can be found on the AOSH website.


It is worth drawing contractors’ attention to the fact that when tendering for maintenance work in buildings that are 30-60 years old, it can be a good rule to assume in the tender that the building may contain asbestos that may need to be removed at increased cost.

Working With Asbestos

Maintenance and demolition of houses that were built in the years 1950–1980, becomes more and more common as the years go by. It is precisely houses built during these years that are most likely to have asbestos in their building materials. Builders and workers who work on the maintenance and demolition of old houses are therefore increasingly dealing with asbestos in their work. This is unfortunate in many ways because at the same time as the number of asbestos jobs increases, the number of people who used to install asbestos in houses originally decreases and therefore knowledge of the properties and extent of asbestos has been lost.

Where is Asbestos Found?

Asbestos and asbestos-containing products were used as fire retardants, thermal insulation, sound insulation and more in many buildings built before 1980. It is estimated that around 1970, there were about three thousand different products that contained asbestos in some quantity as an additive due to its heat resistance, insulation and adhesion properties.

Construction products:

  • asbestos cement
  • thermal insulation/pipes
  • pipe insulation/shafts
  • fire retardants
  • asbestos cement pipes
  • plasterboards
  • spackling paste
  • roofing slates
  • putty etc.


  • fireproof clothing
  • fire mats
  • canopies etc.

Car products:

  • brake linings
  • antiruggine
  • connection discs
  • sealing

Plastic products:

  • reinforcing materials in plastics, floor tiles and linoleum
  • fillers in various rubber products

Food and pharmaceutical products:

  • filters for microorganisms

Shipbuilding products:

  • fireproof insulation

thermal insulation in the engine room

Table 1 – Prevalence

Pre-1955 1955-72 1973-80 1981-90
Living rooms and rooms:
Pipe insulation Rare Rare
Walls (plating) Rare Rare
Ceiling (plating) Rare Rare
Pipe insulation Rare Rare Rare
Floors (vinyl) Rare Common
Mosaic floors (tile glue) Common Common
Tiles (tile glue) Common
Pipe insulation Common Common
Floors (vinyl) Common Common Common
Tiles (tile glue) Common Common
Pipe insulation Common Common
Boiler rooms:
Boilers (packing) Common Common Common
Roof materials:
Roof (eternit shingles) Rare Rare Rare Rare
Roof (eternit iron sheets) Rare Common Common Rare
Roofing cardboard Rare Rare

Fibers Other Than Asbestos

There are many different types of fibers, both natural and man-made, and some of them have properties that are reminiscent of the properties of asbestos and can therefore replace it. Considerable research is being done to assess the dangers that could be posed by these threads.

In connection with so-called particle technology, various types of graphite and carbon fibers have been developed, which are man-made inorganic fibers that are often mixed with metals. Certain threads with a similar shape to asbestos can lead to cancers like asbestos and are therefore closely monitored for developments in this field.

There are many types of glass and mineral wool threads and these materials are mainly used in sound and heat insulation. Various general discomforts can occur due to working with such materials, but long-term damage to health is not described in the studies.

Health Risks

How asbestos enters the body

When removing or working with products that contain asbestos, asbestos threads are released from the material. These tiny threads can float in the air like dust for days. Asbestos threads enter the body through inhaled air. Some threads are small and thin enough to reach all the way down into the alveoli. Most of the larger threads and many of the smaller ones stop in the mucous membranes and cilia high in the respiratory tract but the body manages to expel most of these threads again.

Many types of pollution that enter the lungs are rendered harmless by the immune system, which dissolves the foreign body, but due to the high resistance of asbestos, it can withstand very well the immune system’s attempts to destroy it. It can therefore be said that once asbestos has entered the body, it is here to stay.

Pollution Limits

Pollution limits are set for harmful substances and inhalation of asbestos-contaminated air carries the risk of pathological changes in the lungs. Therefore, pollution limits are set for asbestos (Rules 390/2009), the pollution limit is 0.1 thread in cm3 on average in an atmosphere over an eight-hour working day. But even if the pollution is below the limit in an asbestos workplace, appropriate protective equipment must still be worn. Asbestos has the label “K” in the pollution limit, which means that the substance is carcinogenic.

Regarding this, it should be borne in mind that probably one asbestos thread is sufficient to cause damage, as experiments on mice have indicated.

When threads are defined as airborne, it is assumed that the length is at least three times greater than the width, the circumference no more than 0.003 millimeters and the length 0.005 millimeters. This definition is based on studies that show that it is mostly fibers that are 5-8 µm long that cause tumors in the lungs.

Effects on Health

It has been known since the beginning of the 20th century that those working in the textile industry in England were at risk of developing asbestosis (stone lungs), and around 1950 it was discovered that asbestos can also cause lung cancer. Ten years later, the link between mesothelioma and asbestos was discovered by miners in South Africa who worked on breaking down blue asbestos.

In the last 20–30 years, numerous studies have shown that the incidence rate of cancer and asbestosis is higher in the groups working with asbestos than in other comparable groups. Working with asbestos therefore increases the risk of many types of cancer and affects lung function. All known types of asbestos have this effect.

  • Asbestos-related Illnesses
  • Inflammation of the lungs
  • Pleurae swelling
  • Stone lungs /asbestosis
  • Lung cancer
  • Mesothelioma
  • Tumors of the throat and stomach/intestines

Illnesses caused by asbestos are subject to notification to AOSH, and are registered in the Occupational Illnesses Register. It is the responsibility of physicians to handle the notification.

Health Surveillance

Working with asbestos imposes certain obligations on the employer regarding health inspections of the employees who work with asbestos. These obligations are set out in Articles 9 and 10 of the Asbestos Regulation. It states that in cases where an exemption has been granted for work with asbestos, an assessment must be made of the health of all employees before they start working with asbestos.

This assessment shall include:

  • A special chest examination.
  • A new assessment must be available at least every three years while employees work with asbestos.
  • Records on the health of individuals shall be kept in accordance with laws and regulations.

How Can You Identify Asbestos?

It can be difficult, and in many cases impossible, to tell if a building material or machine part contains asbestos. Asbestos threads are gray and filamentous and in some cases it can be considered an indication that asbestos is present in the material if such filaments can be detected. However, it is usually impossible to say with full certainty whether the material contains asbestos or not. In such cases, there are two options:

Check the history of the house, talk to previous owners or someone involved in the construction of the house. You can also check if there is any data on whether asbestos was used as a building material or is found somewhere in the house.

Another method is to take samples from the building material that is suspected to contain asbestos. This is done by gently breaking off a small piece of the alleged asbestos, putting it in a plastic bag and closing tightly. The sample is then analyzed by a recognized professional in asbestos analysis, who analyzes it by microscopic examination. This is neither a time consuming (1-3 days) nor an expensive process.

If it turns out that the sample contains asbestos, an exemption must be applied for for the work, but if no asbestos is found, it is possible to continue as if nothing had happened.

Contractor Education and Occupational Safety

Only those who have attended courses run by the AOSH or an entity approved by the AOSH may work in the demolition or maintenance of asbestos.

Here in Iceland, the education of those engaged in asbestos demolition has been divided into two parts. On the one hand, there are three- to four-hour courses for those who want to work on asbestos demolition that causes little pollution. This applies to the demolition of, for example, roofing slates and exterior cladding, as well as minor demolition and maintenance work on the interior, for example on whole boards, windows and such. The course does not grant rights to larger projects or work on loose-fill asbestos as there is a risk of significant asbestos pollution. The AOSH has regularly offered courses for smaller asbestos projects and held special courses for companies if needed.

In the case of courses for larger asbestos projects where the asbestos could be loose-fill and there is a risk of high pollution, much more detailed courses and equipment that has only been available abroad are needed.

Systematic Occupational Safety

The AOSH’s supervision of asbestos projects is such that the AOSH reviews the work plan and grants permission for the project. If the scope of the work is of such a nature that the AOSH deems it necessary to evaluate the project, an inspector is sent to the scene to evaluate working conditions. An inspector can request a pollution measurement at the workplace if they deem it necessary.


Where asbestos is used, the rule applies that the area where the work is performed must be closed off in a safe way for unauthorized persons. The work area must also be marked so that everyone can realize that asbestos work takes place there. The markings shall be in such a way that warning signs shall be erected with the following text: “CAUTION. Asbestos work. Unauthorized access is prohibited.”

The closure of the work area is, of course, carried out in different ways depending on the circumstances and the nature of the work that takes place. For example, when removing asbestos sheets outdoors, it is appropriate to fence off the area and mark the fence. However, if asbestos is being removed indoors, the work area may need to be insulated by sealing the entrance and windows with plastic and placing signs at a reasonable distance from the work area.

Disposal of Asbestos

Asbestos may not be disposed of without the permission of the health authority of the municipality in question.

Once the asbestos has been removed, asbestos dust and asbestos-containing waste must be placed and stored in sealed, marked, closed containers and transported for disposal.

Asbestos should be stored in closed containers; often landfill services in the municipality in question will provide special closed containers for asbestos.

It is important for the landfill service to know that it is asbestos, as it is landfilled in specifically marked locations.

When Working With Asbestos

The first thing to keep in mind when removing asbestos is to try to arrange the work in such a way that pollution is kept to a minimum. Therefore, every effort should be made to ensure that dust pollution is as low as possible when removing asbestos. In addition, employees who work on asbestos demolition must use personal protective equipment and practice procedures in accordance with the risk assessment, protective equipment and working methods described in the Regulation on the Prohibition of the Use of Asbestos in the Workplace.

Asbestos in Ships

Asbestos was used extensively in the engine rooms of ships in the past, both as a fire retardant but also for engine parts, packaging and other items that were in heavy use. It should be emphasized that the same rules apply to demolition and work with asbestos in ships as to asbestos work on land.

The Application Process

Before work begins on the demolition or maintenance of asbestos in buildings, machinery or other equipment for which an exemption has been granted, a work plan shall be submitted to the AOSH and an operating license application to the health authority for approval. It is not permitted to start work on demolition or maintenance unless the AOSH has approved the work plan and the health authority of the municipality in question has given its blessing to the project.

Attention should be drawn to the fact that it is the contractor who intends to carry out the work who is to apply for the exemption. It is not permitted to hand over the permit to a third party, as the permit is issued to certain employees who the AOSH has ensured have the certifications to carry out the work. All employees who work in asbestos demolition must have attended an asbestos course, which means that it is not sufficient that only the foreman has the certifications, even though they manage the work and are responsible for people in the workplace.