Revered for its versatility, its strength and its heat resistant properties, asbestos was considered a ‘magic mineral’ until not so very long ago.
It was woven into fabric and mixed with cement. It was used in everything from fire-proof vests to home construction and even Christmas decorations. Its affordability added to its desirability and it was considered the perfect material with which to build a better world – until it was discovered to be highly toxic too.
Today, the mere mention of the a-word is enough to send a shiver through most people – and rightly so. Asbestos is now known to be the cause of misery and ill-health the world over. It is banned in more than 50 countries and its use has been dramatically restricted in others. Despite updated asbestos regulations coming into force in 2012, asbestos remains the single greatest cause of UK work-related deaths.
Read on for more eyebrow-raising facts about asbestos
1. Asbestos is a completely natural product
Asbestos is not one substance but actually a set of six naturally occurring silicate minerals, all comprising long, thin, fibrous crystals. They are commonly known by their colours, as “blue asbestos”, “brown asbestos”, “white asbestos” and so on. All six are harmful to human health due to the long-term damage that breathing microscopic asbestos fibres causes to the lungs.
Asbestos mining is still taking place today in Russia, China, Brazil, and Kazakhstan. Up until 2011 the practice was still carried out in Canada. In 2009, two million tonnes of asbestos were mined worldwide.
2. We’ve been using asbestos for almost 5,000 years
The use of asbestos can be dated back to about 2,500 B.C to Finland, where fibres were mixed with clay to strengthen ceramic utensils and pots. Asbestos has been used by most of the world’s major civilisations, including the Ancient Greeks, Romans and Persians who heralded its fire-resistant properties as a form of magic. This explains its name – the word asbestos comes from the ancient Greek ἄσβεστος, meaning “unquenchable” or “inextinguishable”.
It wasn’t until 1858 that the asbestos industry formally began, when the Johns Company in New York began mining asbestos for use as industrial insulation.
3. Asbestos and the Wizard of Oz …
It seems utterly bonkers to us now that we know of the dangers of asbestos, but during the first half of the twentieth century it was used in a hair-raising variety of ways:
- In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, asbestos was used to make a fake snow product that was used as a Christmas decoration. Its heat-resistant properties, meant it was considered a much lower fire risk than alternatives and it was even used on the film set of the Wizard of Oz
- In the 1950s asbestos was used in the filters of some cigarettes – as if smoking wasn’t dangerous enough! It was also used to filter beer
- Asbestos was even added as an ingredient in a brand of toothpaste – apparently due to the abrasive quality of its fibres!
4. Asbestos exposure kills somebody every five hours
As early as the 1930s it was understood that exposure to asbestos fibres could cause a range of health problems, the most serious of which is mesothelioma – cancer of the outer lining of the lung, which is invariably fatal. It’s impossible to put an exact figure on the number of people killed by asbestos because of the risks posed by indirect exposure. However, the British Lung Foundation estimate that more than 2,000 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma every year in the UK and someone dies every five hours. What’s more, in a report called Projection of mesothelioma mortality in Great Britain produced for the HSE, around 91,000 deaths are predicted to occur in the UK by 2050 as a direct result of exposure to asbestos.
5. Knowledge is the best protection
Asbestos-related deaths are predicted to rise, despite the fact that the industrial use of asbestos is now banned in the UK. Risk lies in the exposure of workers and others to asbestos in older buildings, industrial plants and vehicles for example. That’s why it’s so important to have professional surveys carried out and plans in place to manage any asbestos-containing materials. Asbestos awareness training is crucial to staying safe.
Worried about asbestos? Get in touch and we’ll help put your mind at ease.