The History of Asbestos

It's understandable why so many people believe asbestos is a relatively modern, miracle fibre since it is utilised in so many different ways in our industrialised world. Asbestos is present in thousands of construction and household goods and products that we see and use daily. The mineral is pervasive in ships, trains, electric turbines and steam boilers. It's essential in automobile brake linings, and used in the fire retardant coating for pipes and buildings. Also, it's a component in bricks, ceiling insulation, roofing, fireproof drywall and flooring.
Despite all those uses, asbestos remains a danger to human health, causing crippling diseases like asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer.


Bodies of embalmed Pharaohs wrapped in asbestos cloths. Asbestos fibres used to strengthen cooking pots and provide greater heat resistance.

1st century BC
Pliny the Elder describes asbestos. "a linen has now been invented that is incombustible. I have seen napkins made of it glowing on the hearths at banquets"

Modern commercial asbestos use begins in Italy, where it is used to make paper (even bank notes) and cloth.

Major asbestos mines open in Canada and South Africa, and soon after in America, Itlay and Russia. It is an ideal insulator for the steam engines and and turbines of the Industrial Revolution.

Global asbestos production rises to more than 30,000 tons annually.

Statisticians with Prudential identify premature mortality among those working with asbestos, who are subsequently refused life insurance.

Nellie Kershaw dies in Rochdale. Dr William Cooke testifies that asbestos particles in the lungs "were beyond reasonable doubt the primary cause of death". It is the first case of its kind. Kershaw's employers, Turner Bros Asbestos, do not admit liability. No compensation is paid.

World War Two sees intensive shipbuilding, one of the deadliest occupations for asbestos exposure.

Voluntary industry ban on the import of Blue asbestos

Court of Appeal confirms the first successful personal injury claim in Britain as a result of asbestos exposure.

Global asbestos production rises to more than 4,213,000 tons annually. UK imports 139,000 tons.

Health and Safety Executive in Britain requires all contractors working with asbestos to be licensed.

Import and use of Blue and Brown asbestos banned by law in Britain.

All asbestos use banned in Britain.

Mesothelioma Act passed in the UK. A £350m compensation scheme is announced.
Asbestos is banned in more than 50 countries, but white asbestos is still used as a cheap building material in many parts of the world. Global production hovers around 2m tons annually.

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