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The History of Asbestos

If you asked random people about asbestos in the street, most of them would be able to tell you that asbestos is dangerous for your health. But other than that, not much is known about asbestos. Asbestos has a very long and interesting history worth learning about. 

What is asbestos? 

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous silicate mineral of which there are six types: Actinolite, Amosite, Anthophyllite, Chrysotile, Crocidolite, and Tremolite. They are made up of long, thin fibrous crystals that contain numerous microscopic “fibrils” that can be released into the atmosphere when they are cut to processed. Asbestos fibres can cause a variety of dangerous lung conditions such as mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer, making it a well-known health and safety hazard. Asbestos is now forbidden in construction and fireproofing in many countries. However, at least 100,000 deaths due to diseases related to asbestos exposure occur each year around the world. This is due in part to the fact that many older buildings still contain asbestos, because the consequences of asbestos exposure, can manifest themselves decades after exposure, but also because of the lack of a regulation around asbestos use in certain countries.

Discovery and early uses:

The earliest trace of human asbestos usage dates back to the Stone Age, when it was used to strengthen ceramic pots.

Asbestos use started to be recorded in Greece around, 4500 years ago after a quarry was discovered. Cloaks, tablecloths, handkerchiefs, and theatre curtains were made from it after it was combed and spun into fire-resistant textiles. The word “amiantus,” which comes from the Greek language and means “resistance to fire,” was used for the first time to refer to the mineral. Ancient asbestos has also been discovered in Finland, where it was believed to have been used to strengthen clay pottery (just like it was in the Stone Age). A number of other early applications for the mineral have been discovered, including lamp wicks, napkins, and cremation shrouds.

1660s to 1700s
From 1660 to 1700, the Royal Society of England, the world's oldest national scientific institution, published a series of eight reviews and letters on the history of asbestos, which are considered to be the first scientific publications in the world. As a result of the article’s publication, the mineral's use in products such as coats, shirts, and sleeve ruffles has increased significantly. During this time period, gold appeared on asbestos paper for the first time. When false asbestos-woven artefacts were sold between the 1700s and 1800s, the mineral's properties were frequently exploited to make a profit. During this time period, asbestos gloves and capes were worn by performers in flamboyant shows in an attempt to confound the audience. An Italian textile manufacturing company was founded by asbestos workers in the early 1800s. This company would go on to become the world's leading supplier of asbestos. The mineral was put into mass production, resulting in the creation of products such as string and book covers.
The first commercial applications of asbestos began in the 1870s. With the development of steam-powered machinery, the generation of heat, and the need for insulation and fireproofing, asbestos became widely used on ships, steam engines, and power generating plants, to name a few applications. Because of the remarkable properties of asbestos - such as its ability to be woven and its resistance to high temperatures - it has been dubbed "the magic mineral." Those who worked with asbestos were not aware of the dangers' asbestos posed to their health and well-being.
An asbestos-related lung disease called lung fibrosis has claimed its first human victim. According to the journal Medical Hypothesis, Dr. Montague Murray reported on the case of a 33-year-old man who had worked for 14 years in an asbestos textile factory. Inhaling asbestos fibres had caused him to die from fibrosis of the lungs, which Murray determined to be the cause of his death after discovering asbestos in his lungs. Murray had been informed by the patient that he was the sole survivor of a group of ten people who had worked in his workshop.
In 1931, the British government introduced the first regulations to control asbestos exposure after the death of a textile worker named Nellie Kershaw was recognised as resulting from occupational asbestos exposure. The United Kingdom government commissioned the Chief Inspector of Factories, along with an engineer, to report on the health of asbestos industry workers to the government. They discovered that one-third of those still at work who had been employed for more than five years had asbestosis, and that four-fifths of those still working in the factory after 20 years had the disease. It was as a result of this that the government implemented regulations to limit exposure to asbestos. The range of asbestos's applications, on the other hand, continued to expand.
In 1950, John Knox, the medical officer at the factory where Nellie Kershaw had worked, approached Richard Doll, who had previously written about the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Knox was concerned that he was seeing more cases of lung cancer in the workforce than he would have expected, and Doll agreed to meet with him. Doll compared the mortality rate of those who had worked with asbestos in the factory with the mortality rate that would be expected in men of the same age in the United Kingdom, and the results were shocking. He discovered that those who worked in the factory were ten times more likely than the general population to have died from lung cancer. Doll published his findings despite strong opposition from the factory's upper management.
Despite the known dangers of asbestos, the use of asbestos-containing boarding in construction continues in the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom imported more than 100,000 tonnes of asbestos per year, with amosite (brown asbestos) and chrysotile (white asbestos) being widely used for fireproofing in public buildings, particularly schools. A significant number of these structures still contain asbestos today.
UK legislation finally prohibits the importation of crocidolite (blue asbestos) and amosite (brown asbestos), as well as the supply and use of products containing these asbestos fibres. Asbestos spraying and insulation are also prohibited. However, the use of chrysotile (white asbestos) and products containing this asbestos was not prohibited.
The use of white asbestos was outlawed in the United Kingdom 14 years after the use of blue and brown asbestos was prohibited. Although asbestos product manufacturing in the United Kingdom has been effectively banned since the late 1990s, much of the asbestos imported between 1960 and 1980 and used in fireproofing in public buildings in the United Kingdom has remained in the country.
It is estimated that Russia produces approximately 1,000,000 metric tonnes of asbestos per year. Despite the fact that asbestos has been completely banned in several countries, its mining and use is still prevalent throughout much of the developing world. Asbestos is still widely used in China and India, and Russia has recently surpassed the United States as the world's leading producer of asbestos.

To this day, asbestos is still present in many buildings in the UK and is still used for many purposes throughout the world. If you want to learn more about asbestos or are looking into getting your house surveyed for asbestos, visit us on our website or contact us here.

Steven Hurst


I set up SE Asbestos Surveys more than 20 years ago, and we’ve come a long way since then! Today, we are your go-to local business for everything asbestos-related and more. The best part? Our in-house team handles it all, allowing us to offer you unbeatable prices.

Give me a buzz on the mobile to find out more. 


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