History and Facts

Asbestos has been used for more than 2,000 years. It was named by the Ancient Greeks, its name meaning “inextinguishable”. The Greeks used asbestos for the wicks of the eternal flames of the vestal virgins, as the funeral dress for the cremation of kings, and as napkins. It is also possible to trace written documentation of the use of asbestos back to the days of the Roman Empire, where it is said that Romans used asbestos as tablecloths They would clean these tablecloths, and also napkins, by throwing them in the fire. The asbestos cloth would come out of the fire whiter than it went in, so the Romans named asbestos “amiantus”, meaning “unpolluted”.

Where does Asbestos come from?

Asbestos deposits can be found throughout the world although most came from Russia (world’s largest producer), Canada, South Africa and Australia. Asbestos is extracted using mainly open cast mining techniques – the asbestos generally forms veins in rock, sometimes only a few centimetres in thickness. The rock is mined and then crushed, processed and refined into a wool-like fibrous mass.

How much Asbestos is there in the UK?

Since 1900 over six million tonnes of asbestos has been imported into the UK. The importation of asbestos into the UK peaked in 1973 when over 195,000 tonnes was imported.

Countries with Bans

The following countries have introduced comprehensive bans on asbestos mining, production, sale, use, import and export: Germany (1994), Italy (1992), Netherlands (1993), Sweden (1985), Norway (1987), Denmark (1988), Switzerland.

  • Asbestos Timeline

    4000 BC: First recorded use of asbestos. Popular uses included building materials, candles and lamp wicks (asbestos is derived from a Greek adjective meaning inextinguishable)
    3000 BC: Evidence of the use of asbestos in pottery and chinking of log homes has been found archaeological digs in Scandinavia Medieval Times: Asbestos fibres were used for sealing cracks, making pottery and insulating suits of armour
    Early 1700s: Asbestos papers and boards are made in Italy
    1805: Blue asbestos (crocidolite) is discovered in Orange (this is now South Africa) – it was called ‘woolstone’. Mining soon became a fully commercial industry
    1828: US patent is issued for use of asbestos as an insulating material in steam engines
    1857: The first asbestos products appear in England. Production truly begins after this, when deposits are opened up in Canada and South Africa
    1870’s: Founding of large asbestos industries in Germany
    1880: First asbestos plants are set up in various areas in Great Britain
    1896: First asbestos brake linings made by Ferodo in England
    Late 1890’s: Concerns about the health of asbestos workers
    1907: Amosite (brown asbestos) discovered in South Africa
    1917 and 1918: Several studies in the United States observed that asbestos workers were dying unnaturally young
    1918: The Prudential Insurance Company in New York refuses to sell personal life insurance to asbestos workers
    1924: The first diagnosis of asbestosis was made. A woman had been working with asbestos since she was thirteen. She died aged thirty-three. An English doctor determined that the cause of death was what he called “asbestosis”. Because of this, a study was done on asbestos workers in England. 25% showed evidence of asbestos-related lung disease
    1930: Asbestosis recognised as a disease
    1931: The Asbestos Industry Regulations established. These set a “safe” level that allowed one worker in three to get asbestosis after 15-19 years exposure; it would take the United States ten more years to make these steps
    1930’s: Major medical journals began to publish articles that linked asbestos to cancer
    1970: The 1969 Asbestos Regulations were introduced. Also, the use of blue asbestos is virtually stopped
    1983: Asbestos (Licensing) regulations are introduced into the UK
    1987: The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations are introduced and later amended in 1992
    1990’s: Building workers recognised as being exposed to high levels of asbestos
    2005: White asbestos banned in the EU
    2006: The Introduction of ‘The Control of Asbestos Regulations (CAR)’.