The term ‘asbestos’ refers to a set of six naturally occurring silicate minerals. They are:

  • Chrysotile (white asbestos)
  • Grunerite (brown asbestos)
  • Crocidolite (blue asbestos)
  • Fibrous Actinolite
  • Fibrous Anthophyllite
  • Fibrous Tremolite

Although grunerite is the mineral name for brown asbestos, it is more commonly referred to a ‘amosite’. The reason for this is because ‘amosite’ is actually a trade name and acronym; grunerite was only commercially mined in South Africa (Asbestos Mines of South Africa).

Contrary to some people’s beliefs, asbestos does not grow in buildings as if it were mould, and it is not a man-made material. It actually forms within the Earth’s crust and is mined in a similar fashion to gold, coal and talc.

The use of the term ‘asbestos’ can be traced back to ancient Greek philosophers and their use of two adjectives; αµιαντος (transliterated as ‘amiantos’) meaning ‘pure’ or ‘undefiled’, and ἄσβεστος (transliterated as ‘asvestos’) meaning ‘inextinguishable’ or ‘unquenchable’.

Despite the horror stories you may have heard about asbestos, it is important to understand why it was used on such an enormous scale.

Its chemical composition makes it an excellent electrical, heat, sound and light insulator, and it is also highly resilient to acids and alkalies. Its tensile strength is stronger than steel, it does not dissolve or evaporate, and its melting point exceeds 1,000°C. It was simply better than anything else on the market in almost every way, and to top all of this off, advancements in mining technology during the early 1900s meant that it could be mined much quicker and in much larger quantities. Consequently, asbestos became very cheap which caused its demand in developed countries to explode almost overnight.

A doctoral thesis by Ian Martin Donaldson Grieve in 1927 described asbestos as “a physical paradox, being as light and feathery as eiderdown, yet as dense and heavy as the rock it resembles”. Chrysotile (white asbestos) in particular could be spun and woven like wool, silk or flax into “a fine cloth weighing only a few ounces per square yard”.

To put it simply… Everywhere! If asbestos could have been added to a product, it usually was.

The earliest use of asbestos can be traced back to the Stone Age where it was used to strengthen ceramic pots in Finland. The ancient Egyptians used asbestos cloths for burial shrouds and candlewicks, and many ancient manuscripts were written on asbestos paper. Wealthy Persians such as Khosrow II, the last Great Sasanian King of Iran were said to have amazed their dinner guests by throwing their asbestos napkins into fire, only for them to be retrieved clean and unharmed. Similarly, King Charlemagne of France had an asbestos tablecloth to prevent the accidental fires which would often occur during feasts and celebrations.

Its popularity rapidly grew on a commercial scale during the late 1800s, but its supply was still limited as it was time-consuming and expensive to mine. Advancements in mining technology during the early 1900s meant that asbestos could be mined much quicker and in much larger quantities, and by the time United Kingdom eventually prohibited its importation, supply and use in 1999, at least 6,000,000 tonnes had been imported into the country and added to thousands of different products, including:

  • Adhesives
  • Bath panels
  • Cable sheathing
  • Caulk, mastic and other sealants
  • Cement panels
  • Corrugated cement sheets
  • Damp proofing
  • Decorative wall and ceiling coatings (e.g., ‘Artex’)
  • Fire blankets
  • Fireproof boarding
  • Floor tiles and other flooring products
  • Flue pipes
  • Gaskets
  • Mattress filling
  • Oven gloves
  • Paper
  • Pipe, boiler and calorifier lagging
  • Plant pots
  • Plaster
  • Roofing Felt
  • Roofing Slates
  • Ropes, strings and yarns
  • Soffits, fascias and bargeboards
  • Toilet cisterns
  • Undercloaking
  • Water pipes
  • Window sills

The earliest documentation detailing the apparent health effects from exposure to asbestos can be traced back to ancient Greece. Strabo, a Greek geographer, philosopher and historian, had noted a “sickness of the lungs” in slaves who either mined asbestos or wove it into cloths and other textiles. During the same period, Pliny the Elder, a Roman author, naturalist and philosopher, had also noticed this so-called “disease of slaves” and described how respirators would be fashioned from thin membranes of a goat or lamb’s bladder for work with asbestos.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classed asbestos as a Group 1 carcinogen; this means that is has been scientifically proven to be a direct cause of cancer. When inhaled, asbestos fibres can become lodged within the alveoli (tiny air sacs within the lungs) which causes irritation. This irritation can lead to a build up of scarred lung tissue which may cause various life-threatening diseases, including:

  • Mesothelioma – a tumorous form of cancer which causes the pleura (the external lining of the lungs) to thicken. Mesothelioma is almost always fatal
  • Asbestos-related lung cancer – although there may be no clinical signs to link lung cancer to a specific cause, epidemiological studies can attribute asbestos exposure to deaths from lung cancer
  • Asbestosis – a form of pneumoconiosis characterised by severe scarring and inflammation of the lung tissue. At a progressive stage, asbestosis can seriously affect a person’s ability to carry out normal daily activities and usually leads to various fatal complications

Although much rarer, exposure to asbestos can also cause cancer of the larynx, pharynx, stomach and ovaries.

According to the most recent asbestos-related disease statistics published by the Health & Safety Executive in November 2020, asbestos-related disease deaths in the United Kingdom currently exceed 5,000 per year. To put this into perspective, this is approximately treble that of fatalities in road traffic collisions.

Voluntary prohibitions on the importation, supply and use of crocidolite and grunerite in the United Kingdom were implemented in 1970 and 1980 respectively, although it was not until 1st January 1986 that their importation, supply and use (along with fibrous actinolite, fibrous anthophyllite and fibrous tremolite) was prohibited by legislation. The importation, supply and use of chrysotile (and subsequently all types of asbestos) was prohibited by legislation on 24th November 1999.

Although unlikely, there is a chance that a building constructed after 1999 contains asbestos. Despite the complete prohibition of the importation, supply and use of all types of asbestos in 1999, there was in fact a loophole which meant that existing stocks of asbestos containing materials (ACMs) were permitted to be used until they reached the end of their serviceable life; this exemption was still active until as late as 2005.

There is also an ongoing issue with imported materials. United Kingdom legislation states that imported materials must be “asbestos-free”, however, the definition of “asbestos-free” varies from region to region and also relies upon the transparency of the supply chain. Whilst the United Kingdom defines “asbestos-free” as containing 0% asbestos, European Union countries define “asbestos-free” as containing less than 0.1% asbestos. The United States of America define “asbestos-free” as containing less than 1% asbestos, and, most worryingly, some Asian countries define “asbestos-free” as containing less than 10% asbestos. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to unknowingly purchase items containing asbestos from international sellers on auction websites.

It is also common for old plant and equipment containing asbestos to be transferred to buildings constructed after 1999 when businesses relocate. Similarly, ACMs are sometimes unknowingly re-used during renovation work when they should be disposed of as hazardous waste.

ACMs are regularly found within the top soil of brownfield sites. Although the Health & Safety Executive has published strict guidance on asbestos removal, this guidance did not historically exist, and therefore contractors were not required to identify and remove ACMs prior to demolishing buildings. Even when the guidance is adhered to, there is a risk that unidentified ACMs will contaminate the ground during demolition. It is also common for ACMs to be illegally dumped or buried to avoid disposal costs.

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