This is a group of 6 naturally occurring minerals however only three were mined commercially; chrysotile, amosite and crocidolite. Asbestos is a super material – it is incredibly strong and also flexible to the extent that it can be woven like fabric. It is flame resistant and it is an excellent insulator. As a result, it has wide applications. However, the mineral fibers are easily inhaled into the lungs where they cause a number of devastating illnesses.
The history of asbestos
Asbestos is far from a modern discovery. In fact, archaeologists have come across 4,500-year-old cooking pots and utensils reinforced by the silicate mineral. Wealthy Romans wove intricate asbestos cloth, stunning their guests by throwing tablecloths into the fire and pulling them out cleaner than ever.
The effects of asbestos exposure have also been documented for centuries, but only recently linked to more serious conditions like lung cancer and mesothelioma. In fact in Roman times the fact asbestos was toxic was well know. The revered geographer, Strabo, and naturalist, Pliny the Elder, were supposedly among the first people to voice concern over fatal “sickness of the lungs” (what we would call asbestosis today) in slaves working in asbestos mines. The Romans were possibly the first advocates of workplace safety techniques, using of bladder membranes to be used as masks to protect against microscopic asbestos dust and fibres.
The golden age of asbestos
Unsurprisingly, asbestos’ water and fire resistance made it a notably popular additive in banknotes, theatre curtains, and–understandably–fire brigade uniforms in the 18th and 19th centuries.
With the invention and development of powered machinery and steam engines, British factories needed an efficient method to contain the necessary heat to create them, and asbestos’ incredible insulative capabilities allowed for the creation of high-temperature steam pipes, boilers, ovens and turbines. The adaptable hallmarks of asbestos made skyscrapers a physical possibility, automobiles safer and ships faster than ever. All of these developments helped to bring the British economy into the 20th century.
Asbestos mining in the Commonwealth
Before the advancement of mining techniques in the mid-to-late 1800s, asbestos was mined manually, with horses transporting the raw mineral to factories. The value and demand for asbestos rapidly escalated the development of steam-driven equipment and mining systems. Women and children toiled in factories, working the asbestos like wool by carding and spinning the fibres, while men extracted the mineral underground.
By 1900, more than 30,000 tonnes of asbestos were being steadily produced for railroads, shipyards and construction companies. But as the commercial asbestos industry boomed, so did the deadly effects on those who mined and refined them.
Health concerns about asbestos
An 1898 British report cited “widespread damage and injury of the lungs” accredited to dusty asbestos mills. Doctors noticed that miners and factory workers in these areas were dying at uncommonly young ages. In 1906, London-based Dr. Montague Murray performed an autopsy on a 33-year-old asbestos worker, discovering a shockingly large amount of asbestos fibres in his lungs. This went hand-in-hand with what medical experts throughout the industrial world had been calling “fibrosis”.
Even with this knowledge, it wasn’t until 1924 that the first medical diagnosis of asbestosis was made. Seven years later, the first asbestos-related industry regulations were enacted. This legislation required exhaust ventilation in especially dusty rooms, as well as company-provided uniforms and masks for the dirtiest of asbestos-related jobs. Unfortunately, this did little to counteract the eventual thousands of deaths from asbestos-related illnesses. Despite medical reports and diagnoses, asbestos was still an enormously lucrative industry and workers’ rights and the health of factory town residents went largely ignored.
Asbestos still popular
Though major medical journals had linked cancer and asbestos since the 1930s, asbestos products were still in high demand after World War II. You could find asbestos in countless products, from hair dryers to electric blankets to potting soil. Sprayable asbestos coating gave skyscrapers’ steel beams necessary reinforcement, and vinyl-asbestos created long-lasting, durable floor tiles. Asbestos was revered as a perfectly safe additive to include in just about any product. Even the fake snow in the beloved classic, “The Wizard of Oz” was pure asbestos!
The nail in the coffin
In 1965, scientists finally confirmed the link between asbestos inhalation and cancer. The UK government could no longer explain away scientific facts and public outrage, and in 1969, the Asbestos Regulations were passed. There had never been such harsh regulations regarding asbestos, and all employees at all institutions received much-improved handling procedures, and workplaces required higher standards of cleaning. Unfortunately, this still did not eliminate asbestos-related diseases.
Over the following decades, asbestos factories were finally shut down and health and safety requirements gained a steady foothold. In 1999, all asbestos-based imports were wholly banned from the UK, and in 2005, from the entirety of the European Union.
Asbestos in the UK today
Unfortunately, even though new asbestos products were banned from the UK in 1999, it’s estimated that 13 people die from asbestos-related illnesses every day. What’s more, a conservative estimate states that half of the residences in the UK are believed to contain asbestos. The most common items that contain asbestos are;
- Artex & cement panel ceilings
- Water tanks
- Asbestos insulation boarding
- Ceiling and floor tiles
- Partition walling
- Fire blankets
- Gutters and downpipes
- Roofing sheets
- Roofing shingle
- Brake linings, clutches, brake pads and gaskets
What can you do to protect yourself?
Today, the Health and Safety Executive has explicit guidelines for how asbestos is to be treated and handled by licensed professionals (beware-asbestos-reference-cards). Note that there is no risk to health where asbestos is undisturbed and sealed into cavities etc. It becomes a hazard when it is released into the air. High risk activities involve refurbishments where old parts of a building are disturbed or stripped away, removal of old pipes and artex. Before you start this kind of work in a pre-1999 property you need to know if asbestos is present and if so, how to remove it safely. Removal and disposal of asbestos is not a DIY job, you need to employ a suitably certified professional. Testing is relatively cheap so you should consider getting this done so you can assess the risk and the need for an expert to come and remove certain materials. You can pay for a tester to come in or you can buy an Asbestos Testing kit that you can use at home.
There’s no question thatThere’s no question that unlicensed and untrained asbestos removal can cause tremendous health risks to workers and the people around them, so enormous fines (and even prison sentences) can be awarded to companies who don’t follow these very specific requirements. Remember: Asbestos testing and removal should only be done by those with the proper licensure and tools.
Types of Certification
Category A training doesn’t provide hands-on training for removing or working with asbestos, but instead describes the nature and effects that asbestos has on people, gives information on where asbestos might be found, where to obtain asbestos registers, and how to handle an incident. This training must be offered to employees who may be exposed to asbestos in their daily working life, or those who supervise employees in similar situations. Each worker that might come across and/or disturb asbestos during their working hours is obligated to take Category A asbestos awareness training, provided by their employers. These workers might include:
- Computer installers
Category B training involves non-licensable work for workers who may disturb materials containing asbestos. Courses advise on issues such as how to safely take samples for asbestos analysis, installing cables, and repairing asbestos roofing and floor tiles.
Category C asbestos training involves asbestos removal, which requires licensing. Workers with this training have learnt the necessary steps of asbestos removal, as well as appropriate paperwork and the record-keeping involved.
Because asbestos was used in nearly every home, school, and building in the UK before 1999, it’s vital that you are aware of the possible risks and if you think there might be asbestos in your home find a local category C trained professional to test and, if necessary, remove it. Don’t let the dangers of the past follow you and your family into the future.