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A history of Asbestos

History of asbestos

You could be forgiven for thinking that asbestos would be a distant memory. Asbestos was something that was used in the past, but since the serious health hazards associated with it were made known, its use has ceased. Sadly, although many countries have banned the use of asbestos, it is still present and used in many places around the world. Asbestos was hailed as a wonder product for many years owing to the many uses it could be put to. It was unsurpassed by any other product for its fire retardant properties, so found its way into virtually every building being constructed.

What is asbestos

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous silicate mineral. There are six types, all of which are composed of long and thin fibrous crystals, each fibre being composed of many microscopic fibrils that can be released into the atmosphere by abrasion and other processes. Inhalation of asbestos fibres can lead to various serious lung conditions, including mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer, so it is now well documented as a very serious health and safety hazard.

Asbestos is not a natural mineral that has been exploited for its beneficial uses only recently. Archaeological studies have found evidence of asbestos being used as far back as the Stone Age, where early humans used it to strengthen their ceramic pots. Commercial large scale mining of the mineral took a lot longer as this began at the end of the 19th century when manufacturers and builders began using asbestos for its many desirable physical properties.

What is so good about asbestos?

Asbestos is an excellent electrical insulator and is highly heat resistant, so for much of the 20th century it was widely used across the world as a building material. Asbestos was often used as fire blankets and oven gloves owing to its fire retardant properties and it was even introduced into the filters of some cigarettes.

The bubble was to burst for much of the worlds asbestos use when its effects on human health were recognised in the 1970s. But it should be remembered that many modern buildings constructed before the 1980s are thought to contain asbestos and much of it is still in situ.

The use of asbestos for construction and fireproofing has been made illegal in many countries. Despite this, at least 100,000 people are thought to die each year from diseases related to asbestos exposure. This is partly because many older buildings still contain asbestos; in addition, the consequences of exposure can take several decades to come to light.

Many developing countries still support the use of asbestos as a building material, and mining of asbestos is ongoing, with the top producer being Russia, who had an estimated production of 790,000 tonnes in 2020.

When asbestos hazards first came to light in Britain

The first medical article on the hazards of asbestos dust appeared in the British Medical Journal in 1924. Following inquiries by Edward Merewether and Charles Price, the British government introduced regulations to control dangerous dust emissions in United Kingdom asbestos factories. Until the 1960s these appeared to have addressed the problem effectively. It was then discovered that mesothelioma was an asbestos related disease and that workers other than those employed in the main production or handling parts of asbestos factories were at risk. After the risks were identified to others who were not necessarily in direct contact with asbestos, the scale of the hazard faced was urgently reassessed. In Britain, America, and elsewhere new and even more strict regulations were enacted to protect people from the dangers posed by asbestos.

What Is Asbestos Used For?

Asbestos was used for its ability to strengthen and fireproof materials, including concrete, bricks, fireplace cement, pipes and insulation. Although the use of asbestos has been largely phased out since the 1980s, it can still be found in products such as gaskets and brake pads.

Until the 1800s, asbestos was mostly used to make fireproof cloth in small amounts. Then, during the Industrial Revolution, an increase in demand came for a material that could insulate steam engines.The technology was quickly developed to easily mine asbestos and combine it with other materials.

During the 20th century, demand for asbestos products was increased by the shipbuilding efforts of World War II and the post war building to replace bombed out areas. Many war veterans were exposed to asbestos during both their military service and their civilian careers, with the American actor Steve McQueen being just one of many who contracted mesothelioma. McQueen gave a medical interview in which he blamed his condition on asbestos exposure. McQueen believed that asbestos used in movie sound stage insulation and racing drivers protective suits and helmets could have been involved, but he thought it more likely that his illness was a direct result of massive exposure while removing asbestos insulation from pipes aboard a troop ship while he was serving in the Marines.

By the 1970s, lawsuits were holding asbestos manufacturers liable for the diseases their products caused. Workers who developed mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis were suing for compensation to cover medical costs and lost wages. Unfortunately, doctors are still searching for a cure for every type of asbestos related disease.

Products and Materials Containing Asbestos

Automotive Parts

Asbestos has been used in many areas of the automotive industry over the years. The deadly mineral was often present in brake pads, clutches, car bonnet liners, gaskets and valves often contained asbestos.


Flooring, ceiling and roofing tiles were frequently made with asbestos. The adhesive used to lay the flooring tiles has also proved to be a source of exposure to asbestos.


Asbestos containing cement was used in building materials because the fibres provided strength without adding too much weight. Its insulating and fire resistant properties also made asbestos the perfect substance to add to cement.


Asbestos was used in the production of cloths and garments for its resistance to heat and corrosive elements. Some of the most common textiles included blankets, which were often designed to cover the bed, firefighters operational clothing and some rope.

Industrial and commercial uses for asbestos

  • Fireproofing
  • Cement
  • Diaphragms
  • Electrical components
  • Insulation
  • Plastics
  • Textiles
  • Adhesives
  • Automotive parts
  • Vinyl products
  • Floor and roof tiles
  • Ventilation duct connectors
  • Some mastics
  • Roofing felt
  • Gaskets
  • Asbestos cement sheets for roofing.

Domestic use of asbestos

  • Saucepan stands
  • Oven gloves or cloths
  • Fire blankets for the kitchen
  • Gaskets on oven doors
  • Fire rope for domestic fires
  • Some makeup such as foundation
  • Talcum powder
  • Loft insulation.

By Neil Harrison LL.B. (Hons)

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