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A Brief History of Asbestos

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.

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5 Things You Didn’t Know About Asbestos

Five Things You Didn't Know About Asbestos

In 1999, the use and distribution of asbestos was completely banned in the UK. However, despite the British government making the public fully aware of the dangers of asbestos, knowledge on the substance isn’t widely known. With it being used in every building project before 1999, the chances of a person coming into contact with it is high. In September 2018, concerns were raised for emergency workers and survivors who were exposed to asbestos after the Grenfell Tower fire. Risks like this are real, with over 2,500 people dying a year from asbestos-related diseases.

To become more familiar with this dangerous substance, here are five things you may not know about asbestos.

1. There are six forms of Asbestos 

Most people think asbestos is a single material, however, it is actually the umbrella term for six different materials. These materials have similar properties including resistance to heat as well as being very strong and chemically inert. As a heavy duty building material, asbestos holds a variety of uses and is often used for thermal insulation.

Within the UK, you will find either white (chrysotile), brown (amosite) or blue (crocidolite) asbestos. The other forms (tremolite, actinolite and anthophyllite) are much rarer on these shores. This was because they weren’t used commercially.  

2. Asbestos causes several medical issues

No matter which form of asbestos you encounter, all the fibres are dangerous to human health. Once asbestos fibres are inhaled into the lungs, they can cause huge health risks. The fibres are known to cause asbestosis, mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of the lungs), lung cancers and malignant pleural disease. These are the causes of over 2,500 asbestos related deaths each year in the UK.

3. Medical issues go undetected for years

The most dangerous aspect is the fact that asbestos-related symptoms are often  not detected for 20 to 50 years. This means that those exposed may not know until it is sadly too late to cure. However, exposure to asbestos fibres does not automatically mean you will become ill, it just increases the risk of developing complications.

4. Mining of asbestos fibres is still happening 

Despite many  studies showing the dangers of asbestos exposure to human health, the practice of mining the fibres is still happening today. According to Chemistry World, Russia remains the top producer with one million metric tonnes being mined as recently as 2015. China mined over 400,000 tonnes while Brazil and Kazakhstan follow in third and fourth place, respectively. The biggest importers of asbestos are India, China and Indonesia.

5. It has been used in several unusual places

Asbestos can be found in a variety of unexpected places. In the 1930’s, toothpaste manufacturers used the fibres because of the abrasive qualities it possesses. Cigarette filter paper also contained asbestos for a while. In Hollywood, it was used as fake snow. If you watch The Wizard of Oz from 1939, you will see Dorothy, Lion and Scarecrow showered in asbestos snow – it was a regular thing for wintry scenes at the time. With many products containing asbestos, it poses a risk for anybody to find the substance  in the home or at work where they least expect it.

How can I educate myself on the dangers of asbestos?

For the general public, reading materials online (including our blog) will help build an understanding of the risks and dangers posed by asbestos. For those who work on construction sites, the likelihood of exposure to asbestos fibres is greatly increased. To comply with health and safety regulations, an employer should send you on a regular asbestos awareness course to ensure that you are fully prepared to work  with it. SSD Online Asbestos can provide these courses for you. Our courses have been approved by UKATA, RoSPA and IATP.

For more information on our online asbestos awareness courses, please get in touch with us.