Monday, 03 April 2017 15:00

The History of Asbestos

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What is asbestos? For people in the industry this is an easy question to answer, but for the majority of the population the answers and perceptions vary greatly.

Some people think that asbestos is manmade, others know only that it is dangerous and the rest may have not even heard of it.

Asbestos is a general term that we use to make reference to a group of naturally occurring fibrous silicate minerals. It may surprise you to know that we have been using them for thousands of years, the word asbestos is believed to be from an ancient Greek word meaning ‘inextinguishable’ or ‘unquenchable’. One of the early uses for asbestos was to make cooking utensils and pots as we discovered that it wouldn’t burn, it was the perfect material for this purpose. 

There are other historical references to asbestos and 2,000 years before ‘modern’ medicine realised the health implications of exposure to asbestos, an Ancient Roman Scholar documented that a group of slaves mining and working with asbestos became ill. The Romans found another use for asbestos where they used it make napkins, to clean them they only needed to be thrown in a fire and once retrieved they would be clean and reusable!   In the 1800’s mining of asbestos began and continued to increase amidst the industrial revolution. 

We recognise six regulated types of asbestos.  There are three ‘common’ types:

  1. Chrysotile (white asbestos)
  2. Amosite (which is an acronym for the asbestos mines of south Africa, it is also known as asbestos grunerite, brown asbestos)
  3. Crocidolite (blue asbestos).

The colour description comes from the natural rocks from which the types are found in. The three rarer types are asbestos anthophyllite, asbestos actinolite and asbestos tremolite. The six types of asbestos can be split into two groups, the amphiboles which are chain silicates (amosite, crocidolite, actinolite, anthophyllite, and tremolite), and the serpentines which are sheet silicates (chrysotile).

We continued to mine and use asbestos at an increasing rate due to its 'miracle' like properties.  It had a range of applications such as:

  • It has a tensile strength comparable to steel
  • It could be used as an electrical and sound insulator
  • It is chemical resistant
  • It is fire and heat resistant
  • It does not degrade.

These properties, its versatility, abundance and low cost made it the perfect addition to a range of materials. Tomorrow morning's blog will discuss the many places where Asbestos was used in the past and can still be found today across the world.


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