Profile of a killer: 6 surprising facts about asbestos

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANowadays, the mere mention of asbestos is enough to send a shiver of concern through most people – and rightly so. Despite updated asbestos regulations coming into force in 2012, asbestos is still the single greatest cause of UK work-related deaths and remains a source of misery and ill-health the world over.

However, in recent human history asbestos was revered as a ‘magic mineral’, used in a wide range of commercial and industrial products and applications. Read on to discover more…

 1. Asbestos is a natural product – and still mined today

Unlike many toxic substances found in the workplace and which are manmade, asbestos is a naturally occurring material. A silicate mineral with long, thin fibrous crystals, asbestos is mined from the earth – a practice which is still carried out in Russia, China, Brazil, Kazakhstan and, up until 2011, in Canada. In 2009, two million tonnes of asbestos were mined worldwide.

2. Asbestos refers to a group of minerals

The terms ‘asbestos’ actually refers to a set of six minerals. All six are strong, heat resistant and chemically inert – properties that originally made it such a ‘desirable’ material for a range of products and applications. Of the six types, three were commonly used in the UK: chrysotile (white asbestos), amosite (brown asbestos) and crocidolite (blue asbestos). All six have been found to harm human health due to the long term damage that breathing microscopic asbestos fibres causes to the lungs.

3. We have used asbestos for almost 5000 years

The earliest known use of asbestos was in about 2,500 B.C in what is now Finland, where fibres were mixed with clay to form stronger ceramic utensils and pots. Since then it was used by most of the world’s major civilizations, including the ancient Greeks, Romans and Persians, where its fire-resistant properties were heralded by many as a form of ‘magic’. However, it wasn’t until 1858 that the asbestos industry formally began, when the Johns Company in New York began mining asbestos for use as industrial insulation.

4. Asbestos toothpaste?

It might seem incredible to us now that we are aware of its dangers, but during the first half of the driptwentieth century asbestos was used in a variety of surprising applications. Back in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, for example, asbestos was used to make a fake snow product that was used as a Christmas decoration. Its heat-resistant properties meant it was thought of much lower  fire risk than alternatives – and it was even used on the film set of ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ In the 1950s asbestos also appeared in the filters of some cigarettes (as if smoking wasn’t dangerous enough!)  and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, as an added ingredient in a brand of toothpaste – apparently due to the abrasive quality of its fibres!

5. Asbestos exposure kills somebody every five hours

As early as the 1930s it was understood that exposure to asbestos fibres could cause a range of health problems, the most serious of which is mesothelioma – cancer of the outer lining of the lung which is invariably fatal.  Due to the risks posed by indirect exposure, it is difficult to put an exact figure on the number killed. However, the British Lung Foundation estimate that more than 2,000 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma every year in the UK and someone dies every five hours. What’s more, in a report called Projection of mesothelioma mortality in Great Britain produced for the HSE, around 91,000 deaths are predicted to occur in the UK by 2050 as a direct result of exposure to asbestos.

6. Knowledge is key

Despite the fact that it asbestos no longer used in UK industry, asbestos related deaths are predicted to rise due to exposure of workers and others to asbestos in existing installations such a older buildings, industrial plant, older vehicles and so on. That is why the duty of occupiers to undertake surveys and to have plans for managing asbestos safely are so important. If you are unclear about the dangers of asbestos, you and your colleagues need basic asbestos awareness training, followed by training and professional advice on what you need to do to keep yourself and others safe from this potentially deadly substance.

 Martin Stear, Chartered Occupational Hygienist, Workplace Environment Solutions will be discussing how effective asbestos management strategy really is at our Construction Health and Safety Conference 2015.

Further reading

Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations Review

Asbestos health and safety

Asbestos Advice

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