Asbestos Throughout The 20th Century
January 20, 2019
It might surprise you to know that every year, more people die from asbestos exposure than road traffic accidents in Great Britain. In 1999 the UK banned the use of Asbestos, and the adverse health effects have been well documented through the subsequent two decades.
Inhaling Asbestos fibres can cause mesothelioma, a very aggressive form of cancer with a poor prognosis. Though despite this the material is still found in at least 12,600 schools throughout England and in 2011 reports stated that over 50% of UK houses still contained Asbestos despite the ban that came in over a decade before.
So how did we get here? How did a material that is now proved to be so dangerous to public health become so prevalent in almost every aspect of private and public sector construction?
Ironically it was the supposed ‘safety-properties’ that Asbestos provided that created the springboard for the material’s proliferation into the automobile, construction, manufacturing, power and chemical industries.
Asbestos initially became essential as a result of its fireproofing properties and throughout the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century was used by industry and nearly every branch of the military. On the face of it, the primary intention of using Asbestos was generally considered to be part of efforts to protect workers from other dangers; but as early as 1897, doctors were attributing attributed health concerns to the inhalation of asbestos dust.
Many argue that even at this early stage, over a century before the UK introduced the Control of Asbestos Regulations Act, Asbestos product manufacturers were fully aware of the harmful health effects caused by the mineral and ignored repeated health warnings.
That said around the turn of the twentieth century, the Asbestos industry was unstoppable. As the global population grew, so the demand for cost-effective, mass-produced construction materials grew also. These factors fuelled the asbestos industry’s exponential growth, and after World War 2, global market demand for Asbestos continued to increase as economies and countries rebuilt.
The US, the biggest consumer of Asbestos throughout the twentieth century, achieved peak consumption of Asbestos in 1973 with world demand peaking four years later in 1977. At this point, 25 countries were producing almost 4.8 million metric tons of Asbestos per year, while over 80 countries were producing thousands of asbestos products.
It was just after this peak, in the late 1970s, that a significant decline started in the use of Asbestos, as almost 80 years since doctors had raised initial concerns, public awareness of the grim connection between exposure to Asbestos dust and life-limiting lung disease was fully exposed.
Throughout the 1980s, a spate of liability claims forced manufacturers to provide non-Asbestos alternatives to many products and organised labour increasingly called for change. It was in the mid-1980s, 1985 to be exact, that the UK introduced the first prohibition laws banning banned the import of two of the three types of Asbestos; blue Asbestos (crocidolite) and brown Asbestos (amosite) asbestos.
In 1992 further legislation in the UK was brought in that also banned some uses of white Asbestos (chrysotile). This form of the mineral had been considered by many to be less dangerous than it’s blue and brown forms.
Then as the twentieth century came to a close in 1999, the UK imposed a complete ban on the use and import of chrysotile asbestos outlawing a range of products and work activities relating to Asbestos in the UK by introducing the Control of Asbestos Regulations Act and paving the way for further regulatory control from 2000 onwards.