What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos Overview: History, Use & Health Effects

Asbestos is a naturally occurring silicate mineral found mainly in rock and soil. Recognised for its tensile strength, heat resistance and insulating properties, this mineral was used extensively in almost every industry from shipping and railways to construction and the automobile industry.

For several years, centuries in fact, it was considered to be a wonder material. Before its dangerous properties became known, asbestos found favour universally in the manufacture of roofing tiles, ships and auto parts, insulation material, military vehicles, boiler room components, fireproof vests and more.

The Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Chinese and almost the whole ancient civilised world used asbestos for various purposes. Traces of the mineral have been found in the cloths that were a part of the embalming rituals of the Pharaohs, in the shrouds that wrapped the bodies of Greeks on their funeral pyres, in bank notes, mats, wicks, helmets and jackets. Archaeologists have found traces of it in numerous items, some of them dating back to 2500 B.C.

Asbestos was a perfect material to use in the manufacture of several items, except it was highly toxic too. Today asbestos is the known cause of a large number of health conditions ranging from non-malignant pleural plaques and pleural thickening to the more severe asbestosis and lung cancer and the most lethal of all, mesothelioma.

With the dangers of asbestos being well-documented and irrefutably confirmed, it has now been banned in almost all countries around the world and its use has been severely restricted in others.

What Is Asbestos

Asbestos is the umbrella term for six different and unique substances of which three – amosite, crocidolite and chrysolite are the most commonly seen and heard of because of their desirable qualities.

  • Chrysolite, also known as white asbestos, was the most widely used asbestos through the ages. It is employed in the manufacture of cement and roofing as well as insulation materials, gaskets and brake linings. Chrysolite is made up of crystal sheets and curly fibres, which are soft, more flexible and less toxic than the other asbestos varieties.
  • Amosite, known as brown asbestos, has excellent heat resistance and provides great tensile strength to products that it is used in. This substance is commonly used for fire-proofing and insulation and in the manufacture of tiles and gaskets. It has stiffer and stronger fibres which, if inhaled, can penetrate the tissues in the lungs much more easily.
  • Crocidolite or blue asbestos is known for its exceptional tensile strength and is mostly used to reinforce plastics.

The other three types of asbestos – anthophyllite, actinolite and tremolite have qualities that were not as widely desired so their use was very limited.

The fibres of all the different types of asbestos are so fine they cannot be seen by the human eye unless they are in clusters. Though these fibres are microscopic and appear to be very delicate, they are surprisingly strong and durable, have superior insulating properties and are extremely resistant to fire and most chemical reactions.

The History Of Asbestos And Health-Related Problems

At some point in history, the Greeks and Romans realised that slaves who worked with asbestos were more likely to succumb to lung diseases but they were not sure why and did not make the connection. The connection between asbestos fibres and pulmonary problems was finally made by an Austrian doctor sometime around the 19th century.

Still, it was not till years later that people woke up to the dangers of this substance and trade unions began to protest working in conditions where asbestos fibres and dust could be inhaled.

Slowly links between asbestos and lung cancer were established and proven. With lots of stake, the asbestos industry ignored these findings and squashed efforts at publicising them. They carried on employing workers in the same dangerous conditions and selling asbestos products without warnings. There are suspicions till today that research reports at the time had been altered to mitigate the seriousness of the problem.

While the dangers of being exposed to asbestos are well known today, there are many areas in the manufacturing of various products where asbestos is still used. However, its use is strictly regulated and subject to very strict regulations.

Asbestos Use In The UK

The United Kingdom has one of the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world. This is largely because the UK government permitted the use of asbestos long after it was banned in most other countries. Exposure to asbestos is the leading cause of mesothelioma in the United Kingdom. This is an aggressive, incurable cancer that is caused when asbestos fibres that are inhaled get lodged in the lining of the lungs, heart or abdomen.

Shipbuilders in the UK as well as those who served on military vessels are at highest risk for mesothelioma because asbestos was used in almost all areas of the ship from the walls, floors and ceilings to the engine and boiler rooms.

Others who are at high risk include those who worked in power and chemical plants, factories, refineries and the construction industry, where it was used in the manufacture of roofing materials, tiles, shingles, flooring and insulation.

Asbestos related health problems have a long latency period and this is probably why there was no direct link established between the two for a very long time.

In 2012, the Control of Asbestos Regulations was implemented in the UK whereby any asbestos related work has to adhere to certain stringent norms.

How Asbestos Continues To Affect People Even Today

Although the use of asbestos has been severely restricted, you may still be at risk of being exposed to asbestos and its fibres and dust. This is because, before it was finally banned in 1999, asbestos was widely used in homes and commercial buildings across the UK. Chances are that any home or building built before 2000 could contain asbestos. Asbestos fibres may be released into the air if any asbestos-containing material is disturbed during routine maintenance, repair, remodelling or demolition work.

Common places where asbestos may be found in the home include:

  • Pipe insulation
  • Wall cladding
  • Fire doors
  • Electrical boxes
  • Sprayed and textured coatings
  • Ceiling tiles
  • Soffit boards
  • Gaskets and sealants on pipes
  • Cement flues
  • Heat resistant pads and gloves

It is important to be aware that the presence of asbestos by itself is not enough to put you at risk for mesothelioma or any other respiratory disease. Asbestos exposure and the accompanying risks may occur only when asbestos fibres and particles are released into the air and this only happens if the asbestos-containing material is disturbed or damaged in any way.

If you think you may have been exposed, it is important to inform your GP immediately so that the proper diagnostic tests can be done and you can undergo treatment to minimise the dangerous effects.

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