A Brief History of Asbestos

The history of Asbestos is a long and dangerous one. Once discovered, it was put to many uses due to its inflammability and cheap cost to mine. The use of asbestos in construction means there are many buildings throughout the world still containing this harmful substance – its deadly nature not fully realised until the early 20th century. In fact, just over half of the schools in the North West of England still contain asbestos. This is because it can be found in any industrial or residential building constructed before the year 2000. Its wide use means it can also be found in many unexpected places such as books, toilet seats and crayons.


What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is the term for a group of silicate minerals made up of microscopic fibres that can cause severe damage to the lungs when breathed in. People exposed to asbestos are likely to suffer from asbestos related diseases such as Asbestosis and Mesothelioma. The fibres attack the lungs over a long period of time, causing breathing difficulties for any person suffering from the diseases. Mesothelioma is a rare form of lung cancer caused by continuous exposure to asbestos. Due to the severe nature of asbestosis and mesothelioma, many people sadly die with over 1,000 cases a year recorded in the UK.

Where did this deadly mineral come from and why has it been used so much despite its dangers? Below is a brief history of asbestos.


A Natural Mineral 

Asbestos is a natural substance that is mined from the ground. It is dug out of the Earth’s surface with Russia the biggest supplier of the fibres. There isn’t just one type of asbestos but six. Each fibre is defined mostly by their colour.

The process of asbestos mining is completed via an open put. Its rawest form, it looks a lot like wood. Once separated from the earth and other matter, asbestos is refined into fluffy fibres. The fibres are mixed with a binding agent which is very similar to cement. Any sheets and pipes made from asbestos are not 100% asbestos – instead a product that contains asbestos.


Asbestos in Ancient Times

The use of asbestos has been mined and in production for over 4,000 years. It wasn’t until the 19th century that it started to be mined on a larger scale. It was during this period that asbestos was used in the construction of homes.

Uses of asbestos in ancient times were quite varied. Archaeologists discovered asbestos covered debris that dated back to the Stone Age. By 4000 B.C. the fibres were used as wicks for lamps and candles. In Egyptian times, embalmed pharaohs were wrapped in asbestos cloth to protect the bodies from any deterioration.

Scholars claim that the word asbestos actually derives from the Ancient Greek term “sasbestos” which meant inextinguishable. The fibres were invincible to the intense heat the Greeks used for their cooking and for keeping warm.

Despite using asbestos for its unique properties, the Greeks and Romans also made note of its harmful effects on people. Ancient stone quarries would mine the material and Greek geographer Strabo witnessed a “sickness of the lungs” in those slaves who weaved asbestos into cloth. Pliny the Elder, a Roman philosopher, named asbestos as the “disease of slaves”. He also described how the asbestos workers would use a thin membrane from the bladder of a goat or lamb in an attempt to protect them from inhaling the harmful fibres.

Despite these noted health issues in ancient times, it would take until 1924 for the first case of asbestosis to be diagnosed.


The Industrial Revolution 

During the Industrial Revolution, the UK helped make asbestos incredibly popular again. With powered machinery and steam power filling factories across the land, an effective way of controlling the heat they generate was needed. The insulating nature of asbestos fibres made it perfect for steam pipes, turbines, ovens and kilns.

Demand increased for asbestos, so the first mines were opened in Quebec, Canada in 1879. Asbestos mining in Russia, Australia and South Africa followed soon after. This led to more cases of lung complaints being reported by 1900. Lung sickness and pulmonary patients who had worked in factories and mines using asbestos were becoming more common.

The health risks didn’t stop asbestos coming an incredibly important part of the United States railroad infrastructure. Asbestos would help prevent heat build up and a fluctuation in temperature in steam powered trains. It also helped further when the trains switched to diesel.

The shipping industry started to use asbestos by World War II. It acted as insulation for components that were subjected to high temperatures. The automobile industry adopted asbestos for brake and clutch lining while the construction industry used it for insulation, siding and cement.


Asbestos is Banned in the UK 

By the late 20th century, the health risks attributed to asbestos was apparent and despite lobbying from the asbestos industry, countries began to ban its use. In 1985, the UK Government banned the use of amosite and crocidolite, leaving chrysotile the only allowable asbestos fibre. The European Union banned chrysotile in July 1999 and the UK followed suit a month later, well ahead of the five year deadline set by Brussels. These asbestos regulations were vital in decreasing future health risks such as lung cancer because of its use.


Introduction of Asbestos Awareness Courses

With workers completing projects on buildings before the year 2000, asbestos awareness training was needed to educate the workforce as part of occupational health and safety. Construction workers, contractors, carpenters, electricians, plumbers or any professional likely to come in contact with asbestos needed this course. There are a few to choose from:

SSD Online Asbestos are a leading provider of asbestos awareness training online. Get in touch with us today to get your workforce properly trained on the danger of asbestos.