History of Asbestos
While you may think that asbestos is a recent thing, it’s actually been used by man for over the last 4,500 years. It’s was only the latter half of the 20th century that we really began to realise the dangerous effects of this mineral. Used in everything from heat resistant doors to floor panels, many old homes have at least some asbestos in their infrastructure. Most of the time this is perfectly safe – it’s only when the asbestos begins to degrade that there can be huge consequences, especially when there is long term exposure as there was in factories and mines.
We can head back almost 4,500 years to find the first occurrence of asbestos in manufacturing. In Finland, locals were using it to help strengthen their cooking pots because of its heat retardant properties. We have to wait until Ancient Greek times before there is any written mention of this mineral. Asbestos is actually a Greek word meaning inextinguishable. The writings of Theophrastus mention it and the Roman Pliny the Elder discussed it, also mentioning the potential health effects of asbestos.
Persians made cloth out of asbestos and would habitually clean them by simply throwing them into the fire (much to the amazement of the locals) and Charlemagne, around 800 AD, was known to have a tablecloth made from it. Some historians believe that our ancient ancestors used shrouds of asbestos to burn their Kings and other notable citizens, so that the ashes could be saved and kept. There is some historical information about the possible hazards of asbestos which briefly noted that it caused the skin to itch.
It wasn’t until we reached the industrial age that asbestos began to come into its own as a building material. Around the middle of the 19th century, many companies were sprouting up in England and Scotland that were focused on producing asbestos products. Clydebank in Glasgow became a hub for asbestos manufacturing and huge industrial mines were developed across the world. In a mine in Quebec, output rose from just 50 tonnes a year to a staggering 10,000 tonnes. Russian and Italy followed with their own mines and uses for asbestos began to widen. It was employed as a fire retardant, used in bricks and pipes, insulation, dry walls and even lawn furniture.
Deaths Related to Asbestos
While Pliny the Elder might have mentioned the health effects of asbestos, the first actual death that could be put down to the substance wasn’t noted until 1906. The discovery came about from the high number of deaths that were occurring in mining towns around the world. Autopsies of sufferers found asbestos in the lungs and in the early 20th century it was designated as a harmful substance. In the UK, the first diagnosis of an asbestos related death wasn’t until 1924, this time a woman who worked in a Manchester factory. Her death led to a paper by Dr William Cooke which began a parliamentary enquiry.
The report actually discovered that workers who were exposed to asbestos over the long term were highly likely to develop asbestosis. It was about this time (1931) that the term mesothelioma was also used for the first time.
In other parts of the world, the dangers of asbestosis were becoming more obvious. Ship workers in the US who had prolonged exposure to the dust produced were 7 times more likely to die or become ill. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the American government had to admit that the dangers of asbestos were concealed and the general public were not informed of the consequences. The US remains one of the few countries not to have an outright ban on asbestos today.
In the UK, regulations for those who worked with asbestos regularly was introduced in the 1920s and 30s but it wasn’t until 1985 that blue and brown asbestos were banned completely. Import and reuse bans of white asbestos was introduced in 1999. The UK government finally introduced the Control of Asbestos Regulations in 2006 which meant that non-domestic property owners and businesses now have a duty of care to identify the risk posed by asbestos and make provision to ensure it does not become harmful on their premises.
The fact that asbestos legislation was delayed in a lot of countries and that many governments had known of the risks but did little about it, has led to a large number of claims being made through the courts for those exposed to asbestos over the years and who are now suffering from conditions such as mesothelioma.
The dangers posed by asbestos have given rise to specialist asbestos removal services that have to follow very strict guidelines when dealing with this kind of potentially dangerous waste.