The History of Asbestos

Asbestos is the collective description of six natural silicate materials. It’s composition of thin, multiple fibres has been used in varying applications since – according to the history of asbestos – about 2000BC.

It is believed that Egyptians used to wrap the embalmed bodies of Pharaohs in asbestos cloth to shield against degeneration whilst other countries around the world had identified and adopted the use of asbestos in many practical functions such as a fire resistant strengthening compound for clay pots.

There are many historical asbestos artefacts stored in Museums that demonstrated the vast appeal of this material. Examples include purses made of fire-resistant asbestos, bank notes and clothing.

The production of asbestos became a commercial phenomenon towards the end of the 19th century when industrialists took advantage of the practical advantages of its benefits. However, it wasn’t until the mining of asbestos really took off that its harmful effects were realised.

Mining of Asbestos

It is thought that one of the original mines for Chrysotile asbestos began in Quebec, Canada in the 1870’s, followed by the identification of Crocidolite in South Africa in the 1890’s and then followed the further countries to commercially mine for asbestos such as Russia and America.

The United Kingdom did not have any asbestos mines therefore all asbestos was imported. Despite this, we were still a significant employer of the product.

Despite our substantial use of asbestos, the UK recorded the first recognised death as a result of exposure to asbestos fibres in 1906 followed by the first formal diagnosis of Asbestosis being declared in the UK in 1924.

Regardless of the ongoing and growing evidence of asbestos’ harmful effects, the mining and production of asbestos continued at a pace all the way through to the 1970’s, at which point the public began to understand the connection between exposure to asbestos and eventual ill health.

Banning of Asbestos

In the UK, asbestos was present in many applications but predominantly used within building materials such as sprayed coatings, AIB (Asbestos Insulating Board), vinyl floor tiles and pipe insulation to name a few. There is a good probability that buildings built before 2000 contain asbestos, however some builders would have chosen not to use asbestos containing materials towards the late 80s / early 90s.

In 1985, blue (Crocidolite) and brown (Amosite) asbestos materials were banned in the UK and finally the import and use of white (Chrysotile) asbestos was banned in 1999.

In 2005, full and partial bans followed in 17 other countries including Australia, France, Germany, Italy and more.

Reassuringly in the UK, since the ban of asbestos use and as the years and subsequent education has developed, greater controls have been introduced regarding the management, removal and disposal of asbestos. The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 are in place as industry regulations and include instructions such as the owners of commercial buildings are duty bound to manage asbestos within a structure by proactively identifying its presence and ensuring it does not get disturbed or ultimately remove it if need be.

UK Asbestos Awareness

Leaping forward to current times, legislatively, the UK has a clearly regulated governing body for the control / management / removal of asbestos – The HSE.

ARCA (The Asbestos Removal Contractors Association) is also a supportive trade association.

We are a forward-thinking nation with regard to asbestos, taking a responsible yet safe and measured approach to it’s lingering presence within older buildings.

Most importantly, for any company or person having to address the presence of asbestos, the first course of action is identifying a licensed and trusted asbestos removal contractor or independent advisor via the HSE website for advice regarding management or removal.

When we consider the history of asbestos, the UK, like many other countries, can take pride in the understanding we now have and the measures we have taken to manage this once remarkable and now infamous substance.