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Historical Use of Asbestos and its Global Impact

The history of asbestos use in the UK can be traced back to the 1870s when it became widely used for shipbuilding, insulating steam engines and powering generation plants. Although the dangers of asbestos were talked about in the early part of the twentieth century, it was not until 1999 that the importation and use of asbestos was outlawed.

Asbestos is a mineral that has multiple properties that make it useful and versatile, especially in the construction and manufacturing industry due to its:

  • Heat resistance
  • Tensile strength
  • Insulation properties
  • Noise reduction properties

There are three main types of asbestos:

  • Crocidolite (blue asbestos)
  • Amosite (brown asbestos)
  • Chrysotile (white asbestos)

Although no new manufacture or construction with asbestos could be undertaken after 1999, it is estimated that around 1.5 million buildings in the UK still contain the substance. Any remedial work or removal of asbestos containing materials needs to be done by trained professionals after an asbestos risk assessment and removal plan has been completed.

The ancient origins of asbestos

Asbestos is known to have been used around the world for many centuries, including by some famous ancient civilisations. 

Ancient Greece

The word asbestos is thought to originate from a Greek word that translates to indestructible or inextinguishable. 

Earliest traces

Asbestos has been used for centuries, with pots and utensils dating back to 2400 BC being found in Finland.

The Roman Empire

The Romans were also known to mine asbestos for use in their pottery; they may also be amongst the first people to connect asbestos with health issues. The Roman scholar Pliny the Younger, who died in 112 AD, wrote about the slaves who mined asbestos becoming ill. 

Ancient Egypt

Egyptologists have found candles with wicks containing asbestos as well as cloths containing the substance that were said to be used to wrap around Pharaohs during the embalming process.

Other notable events from history

  • In 1725, after visiting Russia, Benjamin Franklin brought a fireproof purse to England
  • In the 1700s paper and banknotes were made containing asbestos in Italy
  • In the 1850s, firefighters in Paris wore jackets and helmets made from asbestos
  • In WW1 asbestos was used in helmets and gas masks

Due to the widespread use of asbestos all over the globe since ancient times, it is impossible to estimate exactly how many people suffered ill health as a result. However, people’s exposure to asbestos was significantly accelerated by the Industrial Revolution. 

Global impact of asbestos

Industrial Revolution and widespread adoption

The Industrial Revolution was a period in history where substantial advancements were made in the fields of technology, science and automation. The result was a global shift from making and manufacturing goods by hand to more efficient methods utilising machinery. With these new methods came the advent of the steam train which could be used to transport goods more quickly and efficiently. 

The commercial exploitation of asbestos began in the 1870s. The Industrial Revolution had significantly increased the demand for heat power in transport and manufacturing. Asbestos appeared to be the ideal material to help workers meet this increased demand and it even became known as the ‘magic mineral’.  

Routinely used in many different types of building (including domestic, commercial, vehicle, ship and railway) from the 1950s to the late 1990s, it is no surprise that asbestos can still be found in many places today.

Despite its usefulness and versatility, we know for sure that asbestos has been causing harm to people’s health for centuries. 

Asbestos in construction and infrastructure

After the Second World War, large parts of the UK needed to be repaired and rebuilt. The scale of the operation called for a versatile and cheap material and thus the use of asbestos increased, with it being installed in millions of homes and buildings in:

  • Roofing and ceiling panels
  • Flooring
  • Insulation/pipe insulation
  • Flues
  • Boilers
  • Sprayed coatings

Asbestos can also be found in:

  • Cement
  • Pots
  • Brake pads
  • Paints and plaster

Asbestos has insulation properties (it can keep heat in and cold out), it has good fire protection properties and it also protects against corrosion, making it a versatile material in building and construction. Although widely used in manufacturing, building and infrastructure around the world for decades, the detrimental effects of asbestos on human health would eventually begin to overshadow its versatility and effectiveness. 

The global reach of asbestos

In addition to asbestos fibres being resistant to heat, fire and chemicals they are also an insulator, i.e. do not conduct electricity. As the Industrial Revolution progressed and the manufacturing industry began to flourish, asbestos became one of the materials of choice in turbines, ovens, steam engines and electrical generators. 

To meet this need and reap the economic benefits of asbestos, countries around the world began mining for the mineral on a larger scale. As mining became increasingly mechanised with steam powered machinery, it became faster and easier to mine large amounts of asbestos.

Asbestos is now banned in over 50 countries, including the UK. In the USA, asbestos is highly regulated but not completely banned; America’s last working chrysotile asbestos mine closed in California in 2002. 

The health implications

Once considered a miracle material within manufacturing and construction, asbestos is now categorised as a category 1 carcinogen. This is because asbestos dust can be deadly.

Breathing in asbestos is dangerous and has been linked to various health conditions. Although not every person who has come into contact with asbestos will go on to develop a serious health problem as a result, there are various factors that can increase their risk of becoming ill, such as:

  • A high concentration of asbestos in the air that they breathed in
  • Frequent or long-term exposure
  • Whether the person already has issues relating to their lungs or breathing
  • The person being a smoker

When a person breathes in asbestos, it causes tiny fibrous materials to get stuck in the lungs. This can cause irritation and changes in the body. The most common issue that asbestos causes in the body is breathing problems. 

Asbestos-related diseases include:

  • Asbestosis – scarring of the lungs that makes it more difficult for oxygen and carbon dioxide to pass in/out of the lungs, leading to breathing difficulties.
  • Pleural disease – a non-cancerous lung condition that causes changes in the pleura. It can cause thickening of the membrane and the build-up of fluid.

Exposure to asbestos also increases the chance of developing certain cancers, such as:

  • Lung cancer – smoking tobacco in addition to breathing in asbestos increases the chance of a malignant tumour developing in the lungs.
  • Mesothelioma – a type of cancer that occurs in the lining of some organs, most often in the lungs. Mesothelioma kills more than 2,500 people each year.

Asbestos exposure may also increase the chances of developing other types of cancer including cancer of the larynx and ovary. 

After asbestos is breathed into the lungs it cannot be removed. If you are concerned about having been exposed to asbestos it is a good idea to book an appointment with your doctor for an examination. Preventative measures to minimise your risk include:

  • Avoiding further exposure
  • Quitting smoking
  • Practising good respiratory health
  • Going for regular medical check-ups
  • Monitoring any changes in your health

An autopsy of a 33-year-old asbestos worker in 1906 in London discovered a large number of asbestos fibres in his lungs. Despite this, it is widely reported that the first recorded death from asbestos exposure was a lady named Nellie Kershaw from Rochdale, England. She worked for Turner Brothers Asbestos from 1903 until 1922 when she became too ill to work. She died in 1924. Her employers refused to accept responsibility for their employee’s death and this refusal to accept liability was echoed in several future cases.

In 1960, a South African pathologist called Chris Wagner discovered a direct link between asbestos and lung cancer. He published a study about mesothelioma and asbestos exposure, which would later become a benchmark within occupational medicine. 

The proven causal link between asbestos exposure and ill health signified the beginning of regulation and eventually the banning of asbestos in the UK.

Environmental consequences

Asbestos is most dangerous when it is disturbed. Asbestos contaminates the environment when it is released into the air through activities such as:

  • Mining
  • Building
  • Drilling
  • Manufacturing
  • Demolition

When asbestos makes its way into the environment it can enter:

  • The water supply (where it may be ingested)
  • Soil (where it can settle and be disturbed again)
  • The air (where it can be breathed in)

Asbestos is also present in the environment as a natural material. Usually, naturally occurring asbestos is not disturbed and released into the environment because it occurs in underground rock that is located deep underground.

People are most at risk if they live near asbestos mines or former mines. Children, whose lungs are still developing, or people with certain medical conditions, may be more at risk from asbestos. 

Historical use of asbestos

International regulations and awareness 

In the UK, steps were taken to limit, regulate and eventually outlaw the use of asbestos, starting in 1970 when the first regulations came into force: 

  • In 1970 both The Asbestos Regulations 1969 came into force and a voluntary ban was placed on the importing of Crocidolite
  • In 1980 a voluntary ban was placed on the importing of Amosite (brown) asbestos
  • In 1983 the Asbestos Licensing Regulations were introduced
  • In 1985 a total ban was placed on importing Crocidolite and Amosite as outlined in the Asbestos (Prohibitions) Regulations
  • 1987 saw further regulation with the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations

However, it was not until 1999 that the UK placed a total ban on importing and using asbestos in the country. 

Asbestos is currently banned in 55 countries worldwide; however, it is not banned in many of the world’s industrial powerhouses, including:

  • USA
  • Russia
  • India
  • China

China and Russia are known to be among the world’s leading asbestos consumers. The most prolific area in Russia for asbestos mining and production is the city of Asbest, located about 900 miles north of Moscow. This city has been nicknamed ‘the dying city’ due to the tragically high numbers of people with mesothelioma and other related diseases there. 

Asbest is home to a mine that measures seven miles long, one-and-a-half miles wide and more than 1,000 feet deep. This mine produces 500,000 metric tonnes of chrysotile asbestos each year, which is about 20% of the world’s supply.

The decline of asbestos

As awareness of the health effects of asbestos increased, its widespread use began to decline, leading to the eventual banning of the product in dozens of countries. Brazil, which was once the third largest asbestos mining country in the world, announced a ban on asbestos in 2017.

Campaigners are calling for a worldwide ban, with no exemptions, due to the impact of asbestos on the health and wellbeing of people and animals and its environmental impacts. 

Furthermore, we now have access to other, far safer materials to replace asbestos. With so many studies conducted by doctors and scientists, the link between asbestos and ill health has now been proven to be causal rather than correlative. For a time, the suggestion that inhaling asbestos may cause cancer was controversial, but with increased study on the subject, there is now no doubt. 

All of the above advancements in research, education and awareness have led to the widespread decline of what was once considered a magic material.

Modern challenges and clean-up efforts

It is important to spread awareness about the dangers of asbestos. Education is key in spreading awareness, which means educating people about what asbestos is, the risks it poses and the steps they can take to minimise these risks.

In the US in particular, there is a drive to promote the use of sustainable alternatives to asbestos, such as:

  • Cellulose fibre
  • Flour fillers
  • Polyurethane foam

Naturally, once people discover that asbestos is dangerous, they will want to remove it from their communities. Due to the hazardous nature of asbestos when it is disturbed, asbestos removal should only be carried out by trained professionals with appropriate safety measures and equipment put in place. It may be challenging to find adequate numbers of people with the correct training and equipment in some parts of the world, therefore investment in education and training is key.

In 2006, the World Health Organization called for a global ban on asbestos. Although its use is in decline, to this day, many places around the globe continue to utilise asbestos as a cost-effective and efficient material for insulating and fireproofing. 

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About the author

Vicky Miller

Vicky Miller

Vicky has a BA Hons Degree in Professional Writing. She has spent several years creating B2B content and writing informative articles and online guides for clients within the fields of sustainability, corporate social responsibility, recruitment, education and training. Outside of work she enjoys yoga, world cinema and listening to fiction podcasts.

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