Until the 1990s we all thought asbestos was the wonder material. It’s incredibly malleable, basts brilliant sound absorption and is resistant to chemicals, water and electricity. It was used everywhere and for everything. Then we discovered what is was doing to people.
For those of a certain generation, asbestos is just something you heard about on the news, alongside shots of men in white overalls. It wasn’t something you ever saw. It’s actually quite useful, then, to explain what asbestos is.
Asbestos is a set of six naturally occurring silicate minerals. They’re grouped together because they all grow as bundles of teeny tiny fibrous crystals – if you see it in its natural form, it looks a bit like condensed candy floss. This asbestiform habit (a fancy term for growing as a bunch of long fibres) is what gives asbestos all its great properties.
Asbestos is a material that’s been been used for thousands and thousands of years. Archeologists found traces of asbestos in domestic spaces dating back to the Stone Age and in the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs.
For as long as it’s been used, people have suspected something wasn’t quite right about it. Greek geographer, philosopher and historian Strabo described a “sickness of the lungs” that developed in slaves who spent all day sewing asbestos clothes.
Slaves were expendable, though, so no one really cared.
Asbestos continued to be used here and there right up until the late 1800s when the industrial revolution kicked into gear. With fancy technology and new machinery came the ability to mine vast quantities of asbestos and mine a vast quantity we did.
Industrialised nations attacked the ground with gusto and dug up enough resources to build entire nations. In only a few decades, Scotland, Germany, England, Russia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Canada all had booming asbestos industries and were exporting the resources to countries around the world.
However, the process wasn’t fully mechanised and it relied on men to chip away in the mines and women to process the raw fibres. Sadly, children were often involved in the process too.
Asbestos is fire resistant and was seized upon by the construction industry as a cheap and safe building material. It was perfect for roofing, flooring and insulation, and way used extensively throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
It wasn’t only the construction industry. Asbestos was used in motor industry for brake pads. It was woven into textiles and added to the cement mix formula. It was also part of the adhesive used to stick everything together.
To say asbestos was everywhere is to put it lightly.
As soon as people were exposed to asbestos on a large scale, doctors started to realise something was wrong. A huge proportion of people who worked around asbestos developed horrendous lung problems. As early as 1897, one Austrian doctor identified asbestos dust as the prime suspect. Nine years later, a doctor in London recorded the first death directly caused by asbestos dust inhalation.
However, this was the height of the Victorian Empire and a good hundred years before the Health and Safety Act was even considered.
We didn’t have time to think about worker’s rights and workplace safety. There was work to be done.
With much of Europe needing rebuilt in the post-war period, global demand for asbestos skyrocketed. The ballooning American economy stoked the fires even more as new towns popped up across the country.
By the end of the 1970s, the public health crisis was too obvious to ignore. The research had been done and it was clear that asbestos was causing a problem. People were dying as a direct result of inhaling asbestos dust.
While production and demand declined dramatically after the 1970s, it took another twenty until asbestos was banned in the UK and across the European Union.
And while asbestos is banned in the UK, that doesn’t mean it’s all gone. For close to 200 years it was used in virtually all construction projects so there’s still a whole load of it out there. The important thing now is finding it and getting it removed.
That’s where we come in.
If you think your home or business has asbestos, call our team today and we will have someone out to you as soon as we can.