The History of Asbestos and its Use

The history of asbestos is quite complex and some believe it's full of controversy. Read below our brief overview and history of asbestos. 

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History of Asbestos

The history of asbestos is quite complex and some might say has indeed been concealed over the years. Although many people now associate asbestos use with high-risk safety concerns, the material has been used since prehistoric times. Favoured for its fire retardant abilities, asbestos became a staple material of Industrial Age. In more recent years, asbestos has been avoided, removed and confounded for its carcinogenic properties.

Asbestos can be located in large quantities on every continent in the world and it is therefore unsurprising that this material was used readily in ancient times. Archaeologists have found fibres of asbestos dating back to the Stone Age, 750,000 years ago. Specialists believe that the long fibres of asbestos were used as candle wicks as early as 4000 BC.

history of asbestos

Asbestos is a mineral that has been located and mined on every continent and the history of asbestos use dates back to prehistoric times.

The earliest records show that Stone Age inhabitants of eastern Finland were using asbestos in their earthenware pots. The mineral was crushed by hand and added to the ceramic clay in order to allow the sides of the pots to be thinner and resistant to heat.

History of asbestos

The history of asbestos dates back to the Ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Persian Civilizations were recorded as having used asbestos in ceramics, cloths, napkins, candle wicks, and shrouds.

Marco Polo reported having been shown a cloth which could not burn even when thrown into fire during his travels along the Silk Road in Asia during the 13th century. The detrimental effects of exposure to asbestos on human health were alluded to and documented by the Greeks and Romans, noting resulting breathing difficulties.

During the Middle Ages, asbestos began being used in an even wider range of ways. It became more extensively used in textiles such as table cloths and items of clothing and was even added to paper. Asbestos fibres were added to suits of armour to protect the wearer and to make them more resistant to damage.

While we now associate asbestos exposure with serious health problems and carcinogenic properties, for much of history it was thought of as a magic mineral. During the 1700s, it was found woven into the fabric of purses from Russia, in the garments worn by the Parisian Fire Brigade and even in Italian banknotes. The market for everyday products made using asbestos exploded because of its strengthening and fire-resistant properties.

History of Asbestos in the UK

The history of asbestos in the UK began in the time leading up to the Industrial Revolution and beyond. With the development of the steam engine and large-scale manufacturing plants, asbestos became a core material in the production of the many materials needed to sustain the growth in industry that the UK was experiencing during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Its heat, fire, and acid-resistant properties made asbestos an invaluable material for industry and production. However, it also began to filter into many other settings, including domestic ones. This widespread use meant that the demand for asbestos was huge and industrial-scale mining of the mineral began.

The Asbestos Mining Industry

The different types of asbestos found globally such as chrysotile (white), amosite (brown), and crocidolite (blue) became highly sought after and the mining of asbestos took off. The US asbestos industry began its growth in the mid 19th century. From the 1870s, extensive deposits of white asbestos were excavated from Quebec, Canada. The world’s largest asbestos mine was located there for many years.

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Towards the end of the 19th century, the mining of asbestos was an important industry for the Russian Empire and in the Alpine regions of Northern Italy.  Large amounts of brown asbestos were discovered by a British businessman in South Africa and the production and export of the mineral became an important industry for the country.

The Uses of Asbestos in the UK in the 18th/19th Centuries

Asbestos was imported into the UK in enormous quantities from mines around the world and was held in warehouses to be distributed to the different sectors as necessary. Its many applications included concrete, bricks, pipes, and acid-resistant gaskets. It was a key resource in the manufacture of engines, machinery, and generators that drove the growth and changes that were occurring at this time.

The magic mineral was used widely in the construction of industrial, commercial, and domestic buildings. In the domestic setting, asbestos could be found in ceilings, flooring, and fire-retardant coatings also. Tiles and fireplace cement were strengthened using asbestos fibres, and it was even used in the manufacture of yarn at this time.

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The Use of Asbestos Post-Industrial Revolution

The use of asbestos continued to expand into the 1900s during the Edwardian era of history in the UK and the mining and production of asbestos followed suit. As well as the men who were working in the mines and warehouses, women and children became important members of the production workforce, preparing and spinning the fibres in order to ready them for use.

It was around this time in the UK that researchers began to notice the prevalence of lung problems and early deaths among those working with asbestos. In London’s Charing Cross Hospital, Dr Montague Murray recorded the first death of an asbestos worker of pulmonary failure in 1906.

History of Asbestos and Asbestosis

During the First World War at the beginning of the 20th century, asbestos was used on a considerable scale in the production of ships and other vehicles manufactured to aid the war effort in the UK. It was noted again around this time that there were a high number of those reporting with lung disease and early deaths among asbestos workers.

The first recorded death of asbestosis, the name given to the chronic lung disease caused by inhaling asbestos fibres over a long period, was of a lady called Nellie Kershaw in Manchester in 1924. Nellie had worked for seven years in an asbestos factory, spinning asbestos fibres into yarn. The doctor who testified at her inquest identified that it was scarring of her lungs by asbestos fibres that, without doubt, caused her death.

Asbestos Law and Regulations

In response to what seemed to be emerging from these reports and the current data at the time, the government in the UK commissioned an investigation into the health of those working with asbestos. In 1930, Merewether and Price reported that those who had high levels of asbestos exposure were much more likely to develop chronic lung disease and asbestosis.

This was an important development in the history of asbestos in the UK. As a result of this report, the Asbestos Industry Regulations were put in place in 1931. These applied to those working directly with asbestos in warehouses and factories and specified the duty of employers to keep workspaces clean to make use of impermeable storage sacks and to provide personal protective equipment for workers.

Asbestos Use in the 1960s

Imports of asbestos into the UK peaked during the 1960s in tandem with more reports and research being undertaken and further restrictions being put in place in the country. The beginning of this decade saw the advent of Ship Building and Ship Repairing Regulations in 1960 and The Factories Act in 1961 which introduced protection for those exposed to asbestos outside of factory settings.

Safety Limits and Further Regulations

A report was published in 1965 which established, without doubt, the link between cancers and asbestos deaths away from the manufacturing process called “Mesothelioma Of Pleura And Peritoneum Following Exposure To Asbestos In The London Area”.

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In 1968, the British Occupational Hygiene Society proposed a hygiene standard for white asbestos- a safety limit of levels of airborne dust and fibres for workers. Although this was an influential report, it was also controversial as the health risk to workers was now, perhaps somewhat covertly, being balanced with the financial impact of having to make workplaces safe.

The Asbestos Regulations, 1969

The Asbestos Regulations established in 1969, superseded the Asbestos Industry Regulations of 1931. These regulations expanded the duty of employers to provide protection to all employees working with asbestos. They were put in place to minimize exposure to asbestos as much as possible, whatever setting they were working in.

These Asbestos Regulations required that employers improve ventilation for workers, provide adequate personal protective equipment, clean machinery and indoor spaces and equipment at regular intervals and introduce improved handling procedures. However, incidences of asbestos-related diseases and deaths were still not eliminated as a result of these regulations.

The 1970’s- Voluntary Banning of Asbestos in the UK

As the dangers of working with asbestos became more and more evident, the asbestos industry in the UK implemented a voluntary ban on the import of blue asbestos. While this looked good on paper, it had little effect on the industry in reality as blue asbestos only represented approximately 3% of the country’s imports and the ban did not relate to materials made from asbestos- only the raw mineral.

In 1971, The Great Britain Asbestos Survey was set up by the British Health and Safety Executive. The aim of the survey was to record, compare, and describe the frequency of asbestosis and mesothelioma among those working with asbestos and the general population. As the results began to emerge, it became clear that people working with asbestos had a much higher mortality rate than the standard.

First Successful Personal Injury Claim- 1972

The first successful asbestos-related disease claim was won at the House of Lords in the UK in 1972 (the writ for this claim was made in 1967). This successful personal injury claim saw the beginning of a new period where individuals felt that it was possible for them to seek justice for having been exposed to asbestos during the 1960s, 1970s, and onwards.

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In 1974, the Health and Safety at Work Act made even further provisions for ensuring the health and safety for people at work and for minimizing risks in the workplace. It also stipulated that employers had a duty of care to their employees, but also to anyone who was on their premises.

Further Regulations and Voluntary Bans on Asbestos Use in the UK

With the continued publication of surveys and reports on the effects of exposure to asbestos, the government was under more pressure to further increase the regulation of the asbestos industry and to address the concerns of the growing numbers who were beginning to call for an end to the industry altogether.

Another Voluntary Ban in the UK

Following on from the voluntary ban on blue asbestos in 1970, the government decided to impose a second voluntary ban, this time on brown asbestos, in 1980. This was an attempt on their part to pacify those who were becoming more vocal in their concerns. However, brown asbestos made up only around 2% of asbestos imports into the UK.

It seemed to the general public that the government was doing what it could to stem the morbidity and mortality rates as a result of asbestos exposure. The banning of blue and brown asbestos implied that these variations of the mineral were the more dangerous and white asbestos was safer. This was later proved not to be true. The asbestos industry was a valuable source of revenue for the country and they were reluctant to announce an outright ban.

Asbestos Licensing Regulations (1983) and the Asbestos Prohibition Regulations (1985)

The Asbestos Licensing Regulations in 1983 meant that anyone working with asbestos insulation or coating were required to get a license from the HSE. This was put in place in order to help control and regulate the standards of workmanship in the asbestos industry.

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In 1985, in place of the voluntary bans that had been in place, the importing or using of brown or blue asbestos was now banned in the UK. It is still important to note that this did not include white asbestos, the most popular form of asbestos being used at 95%.

Personal Protective Equipment and the Banning of Asbestos in the UK

The 1990s were the decade when asbestos was finally completely banned in the UK. A report was published that stated that asbestos-related deaths were growing at an alarming rate in the UK and that they were not just limited to those working directly within the industry.

25% of deaths of asbestosis, mesothelioma, and other chronic lung diseases linked to asbestos fibres were among carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and other trades associated with the prolonged use of products containing asbestos. Another report in 1996 outlined how the protective equipment generally supplied to workers was inadequate and did not offer appropriate protection.

Asbestos Prohibition (Amendment) Regulations (1988)

The 1988 Asbestos Prohibition (Amendment) Regulations 1988 extended the 1985 bans to include the prohibition of the supply and application of any paint or varnish containing asbestos for use at work.

Asbestos Prohibition Regulations (1992)

The 1992 Asbestos Prohibition Regulations extended the 1985 and 1988 bans on the import and use of blue and brown asbestos to also include a ban on all amphibole asbestos. This banned the import and use of all amphibole asbestos or products containing amphibole asbestos.

The spraying of any asbestos was also prohibited. These regulations also saw the prohibition of the supply and use of specific chrysotile (white) asbestos products listed within its schedule. For example, sealants, floor and tile underlay, paint, glues, protective coatings, and roofing felts.

Asbestos is Banned in the UK, 1999

In 1999, the import, supply, and use of all products containing all forms of asbestos - including white asbestos - were banned in the UK. Initially, there were some minor exceptions (vehicle brake linings, for example), but these were included in the amended version of the act in 1999.

Employers’ Duty of Care Regarding Exposure to Asbestos - 2000’s

In 2002, recognition was made of the failure of employers up until this point to safely manage asbestos in workplaces and so the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 was created to revise and update previous regulations to include several amendments.

One of the biggest changes made was the explicit need now for duty holders to assess workplaces, buildings, and any premises that were not domestic settings in order to safely manage asbestos. The duty to manage asbestos was introduced for the first time.

Because of the difficulties that were envisaged in complying with the new legislation, two years were allowed during which duty holders could ensure correct compliance.

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Moving On Through the 2000s

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 (CAR 2006) was introduced on 13 November 2006 and brought together previously separate pieces of legislation. Namely the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002, the 'Asbestos (Licensing) Regulations 1983 and the Asbestos (Prohibitions) Regulations 1992.

Main changes included a greater requirement for anyone who could come into contact with asbestos during their everyday work should have sufficient asbestos training.

Greater restrictions were placed on asbestos exposure to workers in the form of 'control limits'. When work with asbestos is being carried out the Regulations place a requirement on employers and self-employed workers to prevent exposure to asbestos fibres.

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 was introduced on 6 April 2012, updating previous asbestos (CAR 2006) regulations to take account of the European Commission's view that the UK had not fully implemented the EU Directive on exposure to asbestos.

In practice, the changes are fairly limited. They mean that some types of non-licensed work with asbestos now have additional requirements, ie notification of work, medical surveillance and record keeping. All other requirements remain unchanged.

Barker v. Corus (2006)

This was an important case because of the decision that arrived at in the House of Lords regarding the situation of the claimants who had contracted mesothelioma as a result of being exposed to asbestos over a long period but having worked for a number of different employers.

In this case, a judgment was made about the relative degree of contribution that each of the various employers was thought to have had in exposing the claimants to asbestos and therefore the degree to which they were liable for compensation. Because some of the employers were now insolvent, those remaining were deemed only proportionally responsible for the damage caused.

Conclusion- The Present Day

Because of the long latency periods of asbestosis and mesothelioma (it takes 25 to 50 years before symptoms of these diseases become apparent), it is thought that incidences of these diseases and deaths resulting from exposure to asbestos may have reached their peak around the year 2020 in the UK.

It is estimated, however, that cases will continue to surface until approximately the year 2050. These cases primarily occur in carpenters, joiners, plumbers, and electricians who had been working with asbestos boarding and asbestos siding.

Asbestos continues to be mined and used outside of the UK and Europe to this day because of its effectiveness for insulating and fireproofing.

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