The History of Asbestos

history of asbestos

Asbestos is a resilient mineral whose fireproofing properties, durability, malleability, and resistance to chemicals, heat, water, and electricity once made it an integral part of many industries. It was once highly common in the automotive, construction, energy, and chemical sectors.

The material rose to popularity during the Industrial Revolution, then used as an insulator for steam engines, boilers, and electrical generators. Researchers more recently determined that asbestos exposure leads to serious diseases. Besides being linked to cancers of the ovary, pharynx, and lung, it is strongly connected to asbestosis (scarring of the lung), mesothelioma, and other lung cancers.

While its use has drastically reduced in recent years and laws regulating or banning its use have come into force, it remains difficult to completely eradicate.

Asbestos in the Ancient World

Asbestos has been used for various purposes for thousands of years. Archaeologists found asbestos fibres were used as wicks in Stone Age lamps and candles. The bodies of some Egyptian pharaohs were wrapped in asbestos cloth. And ceramics and cooking utensils were strengthened with the mineral in Finland between 2,000-3,000 BC.

The Greeks were the first in 700 BC to report the low thermal conductivity, resistance, and durability of asbestos, as they used it as blankets, suits of armour, and paper for writing. The upper class incorporated asbestos into their textiles as well.

Various evidence of asbestos use over time includes Marco Polo’s mention of a ‘fabric that would not burn’ in 1280, a purse made of fireproof asbestos in London’s Natural History Museum from 1725, and the Italian government’s use of asbestos fibres in their banknotes in the 1800s.

The Repercussions of the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution saw remarkable growth and expansion in use of asbestos, as more applications for the mineral became apparent.

The railway industry was the first to use it in pipes, boilers, and brake pads installed in their stream locomotives. The shipping industry soon followed suit.  The automotive sector used it for brake shoes and clutch fittings in cars and trucks. As technology continued to progress, application and use of asbestos continued to expand.

Rising consumer demand led to sharp growth in asbestos mining.

The Growth of Asbestos Mining

The 1870s saw the first commercial asbestos mines in Canada, followed by Scotland, Germany, Italy, and England. The Australians in New South Wales did the same in the 1880s, followed by the Finns in the early 1900s. Mechanisation of mining during the Industrial Revolution replaced the manual chipping away of rock to extract asbestos with steam-driven machinery.

By the early 1900s, annual global asbestos mining was producing more than 30,000 tonnes. Both women and children were employed to weave the raw fibres into products. By 1910, annual global asbestos mining exceeded 109,000 metric tonnes. Though World War I and the Great Depression suppressed that growth, it was revived by the time World War II broke out. By 1977, some 25 countries combined to produce 4.8 million metric tonnes of asbestos per year.

Products that Contain Asbestos

Many products have a history of asbestos inclusion, though much of that use has been eliminated today. The products that still use asbestos include:

  • Cement and plaster fillers
  • Adhesive seals and coatings
  • Thermal and electrical insulators
  • Homebuilding materials such as tiles, roofs, and floors
  • Automobile and aircraft clutches
  • Spray-on, fire retardant coating for steel girders in buildings
  • Brake pads and linings
  • Seals and gaskets

The degree to which asbestos is used in these products varies from country to country.

Asbestos Toxicity

Ever since its usage began, there was a positive correlation between asbestos exposure and lung disease. This was first noticed as ‘sickness of the lungs’ by Greeks and Romans among slaves who turned asbestos into cloth. Roman historian ‘Pliny the Elder’ reported a ‘disease of slaves’.

Suspicions about the dangers of asbestos were confirmed in 1897 when an Austrian doctor linked asbestos dust inhalation to lung hardening in a patient. British manufacturing inspectors reported the prevalence of pulmonary injury and damage among workers at an asbestos mill.

Many doctors documented evidence of the ill effects of asbestos over the following decades. But it wasn’t until the second half of the century that anyone really started to take notice.

By the end of the 1960s, over 200 published studies, including epidemiological studies, indicated that asbestos workers faced significantly higher risks of lung cancer, more than ten times the normal level of risk. Some manufacturers and installers of asbestos altered reports in an attempt to conceal information from the public and continue to profit without managing worker safety.

As more research confirmed the link between asbestos and cancer, public awareness grew, and governments were forced to introduce legislative change.

Asbestos Regulations

The first personal injury claim due to asbestos exposure was not filed in the United Kingdom until 1967. Its success in 1971, encouraged others suffering from mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other pulmonary disorders to file claims of negligent exposure to asbestos.

The uptick in claims prompted UK authorities to update industry regulations to include sectors beyond manufacturing. The new regulations mandated the use of exhaust ventilation and personal protective equipment, and outlined formal methods of handling asbestos that minimise exposure to dust.

By 2003, asbestos was banned in many countries including Argentina, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. The European Union followed suit in 2005.

Efforts to prohibit the use of asbestos in the United States have been strong since the 1980s. The EPA banned the use of asbestos in any new building materials and demanded inspection for and removal of asbestos in all school buildings. The original plan to phase out asbestos in all materials, as well as the previously imposed ban, were overturned in 1991 under pressure from corporate lobbyists.

While certain laws regulate or prohibit asbestos use in specific products today, asbestos is still not officially banned in the USA.

The Present State

Although not as widespread as before, the use of asbestos is still common in several countries. Russia and China alone mine and export more than 990,000 million metric tons of asbestos annually.

While it is banned in the UK, it still is present in many buildings and materials from before its use was prohibited. As a result, there are still many fields where exposure to asbestos remains a significant risk. For instance, those in construction and maintenance may accidentally come into contact with the mineral. Likewise, if asbestos containing materials were used in a building you work and live in, you may also be exposed.

Symptoms of asbestosis and mesothelioma may not present for years, thus the broad global application seen in the history of asbestos creates a need for vigilance, even today.

The latest statics for Great Britain reveal that there remain over 5,000 asbestos-related disease deaths each year. There were 2,369 deaths from Meothelioma in 2019, and 490 deaths in 2019 that mentioned asbestosis on the death certificate.

Your Legal Duty

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 obligates employers to ensure the health and safety of their employees. Where there is risk of exposure to asbestos during work, a full risk assessment must be conducted to determine what types of asbestos is present, the chance of exposure, and what the risk is of exposure. Adequate controls must be put in place to protect anyone that may be exposed.

Employees at risk must receive adequate training to ensure they understand:

  • Health risks of asbestos exposure
  • How to spot the signs of the asbestos
  • How to avoid disturbing asbestos
  • Legal duties of employers

Those who manage any premises that contain asbestos have a duty to manage asbestos on the premises. This includes conducting an assessment of the asbestos present, determining if it must be removed or managed, and developing an asbestos management plan as required.

Providing Asbestos Training

The three categories of asbestos training are Asbestos Awareness Training (Category A), Non-Licensed Asbestos Training (Category B), and Licensed Asbestos Work (Category C), in increasing order of complexity.

While Categories B and C are required for hands-on work and direct exposure to the mineral, Category A, Asbestos Awareness Training, is ideal for employees who need a basic awareness course about exposure to asbestos and the relevant safety measures to mitigate that risk.

Human Focus offers a range of asbestos training courses to suit the needs of you and your staff. UKATA-approved Asbestos Awareness Training is the standard for any employee that may come across asbestos in their work. We also offer IATP Asbestos Awareness and IATP Duty to Manage, which provide the knowledge relevant duty holders require.

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Joe Vickers
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