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A Brief History of Asbestos

During the last 100 years asbestos fibres have been used in different many products in the construction industry, shipyards and households. Once considered to be the ‘magic mineral’ (resistant to chemicals, heat and with a high tensile strength) millions of tonnes of asbestos was used to create a profitable industry; even though many in the industry knew that it was dangerous.

Many people believe that asbestos use is a modern problem but this is not the case. Historians have traced asbestos back thousands of years and it was even used as far back as 455BC by the Ancient Greeks to wrap the bodies of the dead before cremation. Before the modern industrial era, asbestos was used in all manner of applications including wrapping buildings in the material to protect from the fire damage during the First Crusade caused by trebuchets.

Despite the suspected danger, the use of asbestos was allowed to develop into one of the biggest occupational health issues in history. In time there would be hundreds of thousands asbestos related deaths across the World.


A History of Asbestos

The history of asbestos is one of great invention and tragedy. Mankind has always been fascinated by asbestos. Even Neolithic man used the mineral to bind early forms of pottery together.

Asbestos is composed of soft mineral fibres which although soft are also as strong as granite and can be used in many different applications.

Due to its qualities and abundance asbestos became very popular. In European industrialisation, asbestos was inexplicably linked with the potent symbols of progress; machines, steam ships and large building construction. In fact, asbestos was considered so important that it was even named ‘Lady Asbestos’ – a Greek Goddess armed with a shield to protect civilisation.

Numerous factories were quickly opened and thousands of people gained employment in the asbestos industry. However, as in many other factories at the time, working conditions were extremely dusty as surviving documents have proven to historians. In some cases works were unable to see 6 feet in front of them as visibility was so poor due to the asbestos dust.

Dust was very common in factories at the time, for example cotton factories could be just as dusty as asbestos factories and coalmines even more so. Because of this, people failed to initially see the link between asbestos and the deaths it caused.

As early as 1898 a factory inspector warned against the “evil dust” of asbestos as evidence began to show that people were getting lung disease from exposure to it. At the beginning of the 20th Century even more asbestos deaths came to light and as early as 1906 a factory inspector in France learned of 50 deaths among female factory workers. In the years to come, the history of asbestos would take an even darker turn as suspicions grew more widespread leading to American and Canadian insurance companies taking legal precautions to protect against legal claims. By 1918 in the US, an insurance industry official published a report discussing mortality in dusty trade and in the report the official said that it was generally the practice of Canadian and American insurance companies not to sell life insurance to people who worked in the asbestos industry.


Recognition of Asbestosis

Nellie Kershaw

A portrait of Nellie Kershaw who was the first recorded by a Coroner to have died of an asbestos related illness. Her death would go on to help identify asbestos related illnesses.

It wasn’t until the death of 33 year old textile worker Nellie Kershaw in 1924 that the mystery of the increased death rate surrounding asbestos was investigated. During the first inquest of an asbestos related death, evidence found that her lungs were peppered with numerous minute fibres which had caused thousands of tiny scars. Those scars eventually led to Nellie Kershaw’s lungs being unable to function which in turn left her to slowly suffocate to death. The Coroner described the cause of death as “asbestos poisoning”. However, Turner Brothers (who had employed Kellie) rejected the Coroners findings and no compensation was paid. When Nellie Kershaw’s widower asked Turner Brothers for financial support his request was refused in case it set a president for future claims and the company tried to claim that her death was caused by tuberculosis; which was later disproved.

3 years later, the Coroner in charge of the inquest summarised his findings in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and during the decades to follow thousands of victims would learn the name of the asbestos disease which would slowly kill them – asbestosis. The history of asbestos deaths was investigated and this eventually led to the UK Government commissioning a report into the deaths of 300 workers in the asbestos industry, which when published in 1930 showed that over a quarter of them had died from asbestosis. The longer people worked in the industry the higher the levels of asbestos related deaths.

Over the next year regulations would be introduced which would force factory owners to clean up the factories and offer medical examinations. They would also be forced to offer compensations, albeit in very limited amounts. Despite this, asbestos continued to be used in all types of industries and even took the form of curtains in domestic dwellings. As manufacturing with asbestos grew, so did the number of deaths and the asbestos industry even went covered up scientific reports which proved and undeniable link between asbestos and lung cancer.

Over the next 50 years thousands of different products would be produced containing asbestos, including:

  • Artex (textured wall coverings)
  • Building insulation
  • Brake linings for vehicles and lifts
  • Filters in WW2 gas masks
  • Fire resistant doors
  • Flooring
  • Garage Roofs
  • Roofing materials
  • Toilet cysterns
  • Seals and gaskets
  • Waste water pipes

Asbestos trade in the modern era

A worker in India handling asbestos. Note the lack of PPE.

Asbestosis available in different types. Crocidolite (commonly called blue asbestos) and Amosite (known as brown asbestos) were banned from use and import to the UK in 1985. In 1992 Chrysotile asbestos (known as white asbestos) was banned from use in some applications and all asbestos was banned in the UK in November 1999. Since then there has been a Worldwide effort to remove asbestos as far as practicably possible.

Canada continues to sell asbestos to other counties even though it’s outlawed for use in the country. In 2011 India imported over 40 million tonnes of asbestos and continues to build with it yet provides little or no health warnings to those who use it. Asbestos is used everywhere in India (much like it was in the UK at the turn of the 20th Century) where use is seemingly taking advantage of lax health and safety regulations. Surveys have shown that Indian’s who are dying from asbestosis have no idea that their illness is caused by exposure to asbestos during the process of manufacturing asbestos containing material (ACM). It seems that some countries are prepared to ignore the history of asbestos over profits.