Asbestos is the name given to a group of naturally occurring fibrous minerals that share similar chemical and physical properties. These minerals have been valued for their insulating quality, strength, flexibility, and durability.
Asbestos has been used by humans for over 6,000 years and in ancient times was thought to have magical properties. Asbestos deposits are widespread, although relatively few are able to be commercially exploited. Widespread commercial mining and manufacturing only began in the second half of the 19th century.
The early use of asbestos
Asbestos use in human culture dates back to at least 4,500 years ago, as evidence shows that inhabitants of a region in East Finland used asbestos to strengthen earthenware pots and utensils with the asbestos mineral Anthophyllite.
The word ‘asbestos’ itself originates from the ancient Greek ἄσβεστος, which means ‘unquenchable’ or ‘inextinguishable’.
Marco Polo recounts having been shown, in a place he called ‘Ghinghin talas’, “a good vein from which the cloth we call of salamander, which cannot be burnt if it is thrown into the fire, is made…”
The early Romans used napkins and tablecloths made from asbestos, and tossed them into fires to be cleaned. They marvelled that they came out whiter than before.
The industrial use of asbestos
The large scale asbestos industry began in the mid-19th century. Attempts at creating an asbestos-based paper and cloth began in Italy in the 1850s, but these were unsuccessful in creating a market for those products.
The use of asbestos increased at the end of the 19th century, when its diverse applications included fire-proof coatings, concrete, bricks, pipe insulation and various other uses, both industrial and commercial.
Unusual uses for asbestos
Because of its varied properties, including its dust and fibre like appearance, asbestos has also been used in some quite unusual items.
Fake snow: back in the 1930s to 1950s, asbestos was used to make a fake snow product that was used as a Christmas decoration. Its heat-resistant properties meant it was a much lower fire risk than alternatives – and it was even used on the film set of ‘The Wizard of Oz’.
Filters: in the 1950s asbestos also appeared in the filters of some cigarettes and even early gas masks.
Toothpaste: perhaps most surprisingly, asbestos was an added ingredient in a brand of toothpaste – apparently due to the abrasive quality of its fibres.
The use of asbestos in construction
Asbestos was widely used throughout the construction industry in thousands of materials. Some are judged to be more dangerous than others because of the amount of asbestos within them and the material’s friable nature. Sprayed coatings, pipe insulation and asbestos insulating board (AIB) are thought to be the most dangerous due to their high content of asbestos and crumbly nature.
Widely known for its fireproofing abilities, asbestos was a common ingredient in insulating products. Manufacturers typically added asbestos to these products to make them stronger and fire-resistant. Spray-on insulation was one of the most widely used asbestos products in the construction industry. Workers sprayed products such as Cafco D and Therm-O-Flake, which contained up to 35 percent chrysotile asbestos, on steel columns, aluminium sheets and other metal structures that needed to withstand high temperatures.
In buildings built before the 1999 banning of white asbestos in the UK, asbestos may still be present in some areas such as old bath panels, concrete water tanks and many other places. In 2011, it was reported that over 50% of all UK homes still contained asbestos.
Exposure to asbestos
People may be exposed to asbestos in their workplace, their communities, or even their homes. If products containing asbestos are disturbed, tiny asbestos fibres are released into the air. When asbestos fibres are breathed in, they may get trapped in the lungs and remain there for a long time. Over time, these fibres can accumulate and cause scarring and inflammation, which can affect breathing and lead to serious health problems.
Everyone is exposed to asbestos at some time during their life. Low levels of asbestos are present in the air, water, and soil. However, most people do not become ill from their exposure. People who become ill from asbestos are usually those who are exposed to it on a regular basis, most often in a job where they worked directly with the material or through substantial environmental contact.
Trades which were most at risk from coming into contact with asbestos include:
- Demolition and wrecking crews
- Insulation workers
- Tile setters
- Ship builders
Because workers from various trades can share a single jobsite, it could only take one negligent worker to place many people at risk. Asbestos dust can spread around jobsites easily and expose people who never even handled asbestos directly. Even worse, workers could bring the dust home on their clothes, hair or tools, which could place their families at risk of secondary exposures, which can be just as deadly.
Asbestos related health effects
Individuals who have been exposed, or suspect they have been exposed, to asbestos fibres in their workplace, through the environment, or at home via a family contact should inform their doctor about their exposure history and whether or not they experience any symptoms. The symptoms of asbestos-related diseases may not become apparent for many decades after the exposure. It usually takes between 10 and 50 years for an individual to develop any symptoms of an asbestos related disease. It is particularly important to check with a doctor if any of the following symptoms develop:
- Shortness of breath, wheezing, or hoarseness
- A persistent cough that gets worse over time
- Blood in the sputum (fluid) coughed up from the lungs
- Pain or tightening in the chest
- Difficulty swallowing
- Swelling of the neck or face
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Fatigue or anaemia
Known asbestos-related diseases
Diseases commonly associated with asbestos include:
Pleural plaques: a discrete fibrous or partially calcified thickened area on the lungs which can be seen on X-rays of individuals exposed to asbestos. Although pleural plaques themselves show no symptoms, in some patients this develops into pleural thickening.
Pleural thickening (or diffuse pleural thickening): similar to the above and can coexist with pleural plaques, pleural thickening covers a much larger section of the lungs. Usually there are no symptoms shown other than coughing and shortness of breath, but if left undiagnosed and untreated it can cause extensive lung impairment. You can read more about pleural thickening on our blog.
Asbestosis: a progressive fibrosis of the lungs of varying severity, progressing to bilateral fibrosis, is a honeycombing of the lungs on radiological view with symptoms including wheezing. You can read more about asbestosis on our blog.
Mesothelioma: mesothelioma is a type of lung cancer that most often starts in the lining of the lungs, but can also start in the abdomen. In its early stages, mesothelioma does not have many symptoms, whether it is in the chest or the abdomen. When symptoms do develop, they are often caused by the cancer growing and pressing on a nerve or another organ.
Lung cancer: lung cancer is a malignant lung tumour characterised by uncontrolled cell growth in tissues of the lung. Tobacco smoking and asbestos have a synergistic effect on the formation of lung cancer. In smokers who worked with asbestos, the risk of lung cancer is increased considerably compared to the general population.
Modern asbestos regulations
In the United Kingdom, blue and brown asbestos materials were banned completely in 1985, while the import, sale and second hand use of white asbestos was outlawed in 1999. The 2012 Control of Asbestos Regulations states that owners of non-domestic buildings (e.g. factories and offices) have a ‘duty to manage’ asbestos on the premises by making themselves aware of its presence and ensuring the material does not deteriorate, removing it if necessary. Employers whose operatives may come into contact with asbestos must also provide annual asbestos training to their workers.