Historically, as well as being used by the Greeks, asbestos was also widely used in Persia, where many believed it came from the fur of an animal, and in China, where there is some evidence to suggest it was used for shrouds and funeral garments.
Asbestos was known to have been used woven into cloth right through the Middle Ages and into the 18th Century but it was not until the Industrial Revolution in the 19th Century that its use grew rapidly as it started to be used in the burgeoning factories as an insulating and fire-resistant product.
Asbestos is found naturally in many parts of the world including the North American, Eastern European and African continents. The mineral is extracted from rocks by crushing them and then milling the crushed rock to produce raw asbestos fibres.
Commercial mines began to be developed in the late 1800’s and by the middle of the 20th century asbestos was being widely used in the construction industry not just as a fire-retardant and insulating material but also in concrete, bricks, pipes, flooring and roofing. It was also widely used in the ship-building industry in boiler, engine and turbine parts, and in brake pads and clutch discs for cars and many other vehicles. For a short while in the mid-fifties asbestos was even used in the filter tips of some brands of cigarette.
But although asbestos was still being widely used up until the 1970’s, warnings of the hazards to health, particularly in asbestos mining towns, were already being published as early as the 1930’s. Medical research at that time had started to reveal a connection between prolonged exposure to asbestos fibres and lung diseases although the early deaths of young people in asbestos mining towns had been noted many years earlier.
Huge amounts of asbestos were used during World War II by the US Navy in the building of ships, even though the dangers to health were already publicised and it wasn’t until many years later and into the beginning of the 21st century that all forms of asbestos were finally banned in the UK, US, Australia and many other countries. Buildings that contain asbestos have sprouted an entire industry of companies like Fresh and Clear who conduct asbestos removal at Perth buildings and homes, luckily they stopped using asbestos in 2003 in construction in Australia. Unfortunately, not all countries have yet banned the mining, export or import of the chrysotile form of asbestos. Canada continues to mine and export chrysotile to developing countries in Asia such as India, Indonesia and The Philippines.
So while more than 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer and mesothelioma, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), some countries continue to ignore the extremely serious risks that asbestos exposure poses to human health. Since the time of the ancient Greeks warnings about the health risks of asbestos have been ignored and they continue to be ignored today in some parts of the world.
The properties of asbestos that historically made it a useful material (its strength and its resistance to heat, electricity and chemical erosion) mean that there is still demand for it in certain countries. Even in countries where it’s use is now banned, commercial and residential buildings constructed as late as the 1980’s can still contain a whole variety of asbestos products such as industrial roofing, asbestos cement walls and asbestos roofs on outbuildings.