Asbestos: a history of the ‘magic mineral’

Asbestos: a history of the ‘magic mineral’

Like it or not, asbestos is part of the UK’s social history. After smoking, asbestos is one of the main causes of death from lung disease and we have the highest rate of asbestos-related deaths per head in the world, with over 5,000 deaths from mesothelioma or asbestos-related lung cancer each year. It also causes thousands of (usually) non-fatal but debilitating respiratory illnesses, such as asbestosis and diffuse pleural thickening.

For very good reason asbestos has become a dirty word: a by-word for a dangerous, toxic substance that you wouldn’t want to go near. But it wasn’t always that way. Until the 1970s asbestos was seen as a magic material renowned for its strength, fire resistance and insulating properties.

As a throwback to those times, even now you hear people say someone has ‘asbestos hands’ if they can handle something hot without getting scalded. Asbestos was associated with good qualities: strength, resistance and, ironically, safety. In fact, the word asbestos, first used in England in the fourteenth century, came from the Greek meaning inextinguishable or unquenchable. Before that, ancient Egyptians used asbestos around 6,000 years ago for its heat-resistant properties. In fact, the Egyptians thought so highly of asbestos that they wrapped the embalmed bodies of Pharaohs in asbestos cloth so their bodies could pass unscathed to the after-life.

Many of the world’s largest asbestos mines were in Canada, Australia and South Africa and it’s partly because of these colonial links that Britain started using asbestos with enthusiasm from the late nineteenth century onwards. It was seen as a useful, versatile and safe product for many every day purposes. After World War II, asbestos was considered the ideal product to reconstruct fire and bomb-damaged homes, schools, hospitals and factories.

But this so-called magic mineral had a dark and dirty secret, which government and asbestos manufacturers had known since before the war. While asbestos could save lives from fire it was itself highly dangerous and its widespread use in the UK, especially during the 1950s-70s has since led to tens of thousands of deaths from mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.

A dangerous product

The potential dangers of asbestos were first detected long before. Two-thousand years ago, Roman diarist, Pliny, observed that slaves working in asbestos mines ‘tended to get ill’. Years later, in 1898 Britain’s Chief Factory Inspector noted the ‘injurious nature of asbestos dust’. Exactly how destructive asbestos was, became clear over the next nine decades. In 1906, eight years after that warning, the first death from asbestos was recorded in this country when an asbestos worker died from lung failure at Charing Cross Hospital.

While asbestos is now thought to be something to avoid at all costs, it’s important to note that once asbestos is in place - provided it’s kept in good condition - it shouldn’t present a health risk. It’s when something happens to disturb and release those fibres that they can be breathed in and create future diseases. This can happen in four ways: transporting it in raw form, making or installing new asbestos products, deterioration, and repairing or removing old asbestos products. It can also happen through mining but we’ve never had asbestos mines in this country. In the UK asbestos use has been completely banned since the 1990s, but the risk from older asbestos remains because of the high level used in public buildings, especially in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

Where asbestos has been used

Asbestos in the home

Lesser known is the extent to which asbestos entered the home in a myriad of ways. For example, roofs, exterior walls, pipework, ceilings such as Artex moulding and ceiling tiles, interior walls and panels, floor tiles and lino, domestic appliances such as boilers, water tanks and toasters all often contained asbestos. Even many ironing board covers and cooking gloves which may still be in use today contained asbestos.

Asbestos also made its way into several bathroom products. Now that we know how bad asbestos is, it’s horrifying to imagine there was a toothpaste called Ipana that used asbestos fibres as the abrasive to get teeth whiter. Talc powder was another product which often contained asbestos as it is found near asbestos in the earth, making it easily contaminated by the toxin when mined. Talc is a natural mineral that is used for a variety of consumer and industrial products, including baby powder, cosmetics, ceramics, and plastics.

In fact, using asbestos-containing talcum powder on genital areas may be associated with ovarian cancer. In 2018, a report by Reuters News Service revealed internal documents from Johnson & Johnson about asbestos contaminating its talc-based products and the company is now facing more than 11,000 asbestos-contaminated talc lawsuits.

Car parts

If you find those uses shocking, consider these. Asbestos was used frequently in the car industry before the late 1970s. The material offered insulation and heat resistance to parts that faced high temperatures, such as brake linings, which during the 1960s-70s many men used to change themselves, blowing out the white asbestos dust in the process.

Fake snow

In the 1930s-50s, asbestos was used to make fake snow which people would put on their Christmas tree, around their home or in shop window displays. It was desirable because it didn’t catch fire like other substances and was even used on the set of The Wizard of Oz.

Cigarette filters

In the 1950s asbestos filters were used in Kent cigarettes, which were advertised as ‘the greatest health protection in history’ because they were one of the first filtered cigarettes. Yet the blue asbestos they contained is probably one of the most dangerous and carcinogenic substances known to man. 

Surgical thread

After World War II, surgeons used asbestos thread to close wounds because of its flexibility and high strength.  It was common for heart and lung surgery patients to have their incisions closed with this thread. 

Children’s crayons

Incredibly, in 2015 trace amounts of asbestos fibres were found in children’s colouring crayons made by Crayola and Rose Art. Playskool crayons in the US apparently still have traces of asbestos in them, though it’s unclear whether this is in the wax or wrappers.

Asbestos support

We are running a free asbestos support clinic at Brachers’ Maidstone office on 14 November 2019. Myself and my team of knowledgeable advisers will be on hand to offer legal guidance on no win, no fee compensation claims, welfare benefits and support services available to victims and their families affected by asbestos-related diseases. Simply call me on 01622 680415 or email jeremy.horton@brachers.co.uk to register your attendance.