Most people, from homeowners to commercial landlords and other everyday Kiwis, are now aware of the dangers of asbestos. Nearly everyone knows the formerly commonplace construction material is a hazard to respiratory health, once the asbestos fibres begin to deteriorate over time, with the microfilaments entering and irritating the lungs. Many have chosen to pre-emptively test for asbestos, know that doing so is vital to ensure your home or business is danger-free.
But this begs the question: if the dangers are so well-recorded now, then why were asbestos building materials so common in the past?
The answer: the dangers of asbestos were simply not as clear-cut as they are now. Similarly the material’s use in construction and numerous other purposes for thousands of years made it a vital resources through the ages.
Keen to know more? The history of asbestos is an interesting tale, with stories from all over the globe painting a diverse picture of this former wonder material. Read on for some weird facts about asbestos production and use.
1) The beginnings of asbestos exposure: the Stone Age and Ancient Egypt
Asbestos’ many uses in construction as a fire retardant and insulating agent over the years could lead you to think the material was man-made in a lab. In fact, the mineral occurs naturally in large deposits on every continent on the planet. The earliest evidence of asbestos being used in building dates back 750,000 years. Scientists discovered evidence of asbestos fibres in the rubble of a Stone Age dwelling—coincidence, or evidence that the earliest people were aware of asbestos’ uses?
Later on, asbestos is used to help preserve the bodies of Egyptian pharaohs, while clay pot fragments recovered in Finland were proven to contain the material, showing asbestos was used strengthen these artifacts and make them fire retardant.
2) Knowing the dangers: Ancient Greece and Rome
It’s around the time of the Ancient Greek and Roman civilisations that we see the first signs of awareness around the dangers of asbestos.
Between 400-500 B.C., asbestos clothes were used to wrap bodies being prepared for cremation, to prevent the ash from the bodies and the fire mixing. Asbestos building materials were also commonly used throughout both empires. However, notable scholars of the time began to take notice of asbestos’ effects on miners, according to the US-based Environmental Litigation Group.
Greek geographer and historian Strabo documented a ‘sickness of the lungs’ in the slaves who wove fibres from asbestos into textiles. He included these observations in his travel writings, making it the first documentation of the dangers of asbestos.
Similarly, Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote about the disease he noticed in asbestos miners (most likely asbestosis or another form of lung cancer). He also recorded the protective measures taken to limit exposure, which included slaves covering their mouths and noses with a thin membrane—from a goat bladder!
3) Industrialising asbestos production: the 19th Century
Up until this point, asbestos production wasn’t as mechanised as it could be. All that changed in the mid-nineteenth century, when the founding of asbestos mines all over the world added a building material that was resistant to numerous elements, including chemicals, water and electricity. This made asbestos the perfect material to aid the engines of the Industrial Revolution continue working, mechanising and modernising the planet.
In the 1870s, mines cropped up in Free State (now part of South Africa), Quebec, Canada and all over Russia. This was followed by major mining and production sites in Scotland, Germany and England. Australians, meanwhile, began mining asbestos in Jones Creek, New South Wales, in the 1880s.
A lot of these early supplies were exported to New Zealand for use in construction and dozens of other applications.
4) Asbestos—the modern convenience: 1940s & 1950s
The post-war years brought with them an even greater use of asbestos than ever before. The Mesothelioma Centre states that the U.S. was responsible for the use of 60 per cent of all asbestos produced around the world—a staggering figure, and indicative of the range of uses for the material.
Some of the weird uses for asbestos during the time include:
● Fake snow for Christmas decorations and displays.
● As an abrasive cleaning element in toothpaste recipes.
● Heat-proof asbestos layers were added to the hoods of hair salon dryers, to save customers from getting burnt.
● Asbestos’ high tensile strength and durability made it an excellent surgical thread in the post-war years.
● The material was also used in the filters of many cigarette brands of the time.
This widespread use meant that asbestos became a part of everything in the life of Kiwis at the time—and unfortunately would continue to be for decades to come.
5) Wittenoom, Western Australia, is abandoned because of asbestos: 1970s
Wittenoom is a small town around 1,100 kilometres north of Perth, Western Australia. The flourishing settlement was home to nearly 1,000 people at its height in the mid-1950s, and the entire community’s livelihood was dependant on the asbestos mine nearby.
However, the mine was shut down in 1966 due to unprofitability. This led to the total abandonment of Wittenoom in the early 1970s.
This was one of the first signs of acceptance around the dangers of asbestos. Many more mines would close down in Australia over the coming years (New Zealand’s only mine, in Takaka, Abel Tasman, shut down in the early 1960s).
This was unfortunately too late to reverse the damage done to the residents and mine workers that used to live in Wittenoom. WA Today estimates that between 2,000-3,000 people that used to live there have died over the years from asbestos-related illness. This is a tragic reminder as to why asbestos is so dangerous—making it all the more bizarre to think the material is still widely used today.
6) Asbestos is still used in building materials to this day
Despite the well-publicised dangers of the material and the fact that it’s partially banned in at least 55 countries, asbestos is still mined extensively in many countries.
Russia leads the world in asbestos production, according to the ELG. Meanwhile, other large nations such as Kazakhstan, Brazil, and China also produce vast quantities of the material for export to developing nations around the world.
This is made possible by the number of countries with relaxed litigation around the importation of products that contain asbestos. This means that it’s still very common in households around the world—and its long history of use in New Zealand means there could still be asbestos in your property.
What can I do about asbestos in my home or business?
If you suspect asbestos may be present in your home or in the structure of your commercial property, you should reach out to experts in asbestos removal projects in order to assess your options. The first stage of treating asbestos building materials is to identify if your suspicions are correct or not. You can perform this test yourself, or use professional services such as those offered by Chemcare.
Once the material has been proven to contain asbestos fibres, you’ll need to decide on how you want to treat it. Asbestos removal is the most comprehensive long-term fix, but alternatives such as encapsulation treatment may be a better fit, depending on the condition of your property. Only accredited asbestos professionals can start on any project once you’ve decided on the best course of action.
Chemcare’s team has years of experience handling asbestos removal projects nationwide—we know the importance of transparency and taking customer concerns seriously. We work through our process with you thoroughly to ensure you’re totally happy with the end result.
For more helpful information on what you can do about asbestos, be sure to download our FREE ebook.