The history of asbestos


Asbestos in History

The history of asbestos


Asbestos naturally occurs on every continent in the world. Asbestos fibers have been found dating back to the Stone Age, some 750,000 years ago. It is believed that as early as 4000BC, asbestos’ long hair-like fibres were used for wicks in lamps and candles.

Bodies of Egyptian pharaohs were wrapped in asbestos cloth to protect the bodies from deterioration around 2000-3000BC.

Romans were said to have woven asbestos fibres into a cloth-like material that was then sewn into tablecloths and napkins. These cloths were purportedly cleaned by throwing them into a blistering fire, from which they came out miraculously unharmed and essentially whiter than when they went in.

While Greeks and Romans exploited the unique properties of asbestos, they also documented its harmful effects on those who mined the silken material from ancient stone quarries. Greek geographer Strabo noted a “sickness of the lungs” in slaves who wove asbestos into cloth. Roman historian, naturalist and philosopher, Pliny the Elder, wrote of the “disease of slaves,” and actually described the use of a thin membrane from the bladder of a goat or lamb used by the slave miners as an early respirator in an attempt to protect them from inhaling the harmful asbestos fibres as they laboured.

Asbestos in Egyptian times

Middle ages

Around 755, King Charlemagne of France had a tablecloth made of asbestos to prevent it from burning during the accidental fires that frequently occurred during feasts and celebrations.

In 1095, the French, German and Italian who fought in the First Crusade used a trebuchet, to fire flaming bags of tar wrapped in asbestos bags over city walls during their sieges.

Asbestos in Middle ages

Industrial revolution era

Asbestos use in the uk was reintroduced in the 1700s but did not become widespread until the industrial revolution in the 1800s.

Paper made from white chrysotile asbestos was discovered in Italy in the early 1700s. By the 1800s, the Italian government was utilizing asbestos fibers in its bank notes.

The Fire Brigade in Paris, France in the mid-1850s wore jackets and helmets made from asbestos.

The industrial revolution made the asbestos industry boom, factories were opening everywhere and new uses for the mineral we being invented regularly.

The railway and shipbuilding industries were among the front runners for the use of asbestos containing products (ACM’s). These industries were also booming meaning the demand for asbestos was large.

The railway industry engineers began to use asbestos materials on refrigeration, insulation for pipe work and boilers. These were mainly limited to steam locomotives which are still found today. We actually carried out a removal of pipe insulation to a steam locomotive from this era in 2016.

Shipbuilding peaked during war time when the industry boomed and again the demand for asbestos was huge.

Asbestos in Industrial revolution

The 20th century

The first recorded death related to asbestos was in 1906. Researchers began to notice large numbers of deaths related to the asbestos industry, particularly in mining towns.

Diagnosis of the first asbestosis case was in 1924. Nellie Kershaw an English textile worker from Rochdale had been working with asbestos since the age of 13. She died at the young age of 33 and after the doctor determined the cause of the death was asbestosis a nationwide study was done on asbestos workers. The study revealed 25% of them showed evidence of asbestos related diseases.

Asbestos continued to be used in manufacturing and construction industries despite the fact many new alternatives had been invented.

Asbestos in 20th century

In 1970 a voluntary ban on uk imports of raw Crocidolite (blue asbestos) was put in place.  Its safe to say the first voluntary asbestos import ban did little more than placate the public. The 1974 health and safety at work act brought to light the issues again as employees now had to protect their employees from risks at work.

The uk government finally banned the production and importation officially in 1985. Although this only banned two types of asbestos : Amosite (brown asbestos) and Crocidolite (blue asbestos).

Chrysotile( white asbestos) was still being imported and installed right up until 1999 where it was also banned.

This is the reason asbestos can be found in any building refurbished or built before the year 2000 and why the need to have an asbestos survey carried out is important.

Asbestos related deaths are currently just over 5000 per year in the uk and this is rising each year due to how popular the material was until its ban.


Q: How did ancient civilizations use asbestos, and what were some notable examples?

A: Asbestos has been utilized by ancient civilizations for various purposes. For instance, in ancient Egypt, asbestos fibres were used to wrap the bodies of pharaohs to preserve them. Romans used asbestos fibres in cloth-like materials for tablecloths and napkins, which were reputedly cleaned by throwing them into fire. Additionally, King Charlemagne of France reportedly owned a tablecloth made of asbestos to prevent it from burning during feasts.

Q: When did scientists become aware of the health hazards associated with asbestos, and what were some early cases of asbestos-related diseases?

A: The earliest recorded recognition of the health hazards of asbestos dates back to the early 20th century. The first documented asbestos-related death occurred in 1906, and the diagnosis of the first case of asbestosis was in 1924. Nellie Kershaw, an English textile worker, tragically died at the age of 33 due to asbestosis, sparking nationwide awareness of asbestos-related diseases.

Q: What led to the ban of asbestos production and importation in the UK, and why is asbestos still a concern in buildings constructed before 2000?

A: The UK government officially banned the production and importation of certain types of asbestos in 1985, with a complete ban on Chrysotile (white asbestos) enforced in 1999. However, asbestos remains a concern in buildings constructed before 2000 because it was a popular construction material until its ban. Asbestos-related deaths continue to occur, with over 5000 per year in the UK, necessitating the importance of asbestos surveys in older buildings to ensure safety.

Further Reading

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