Asbestos: The First Inconvenient Truth? A History of Asbestos and Its Associated Health Risks

Asbestos: The First Inconvenient Truth? A History of Asbestos and Its Associated Health Risks

Many people are surprised to learn, especially in the context of our modern understanding of its toxicity and harmful properties, that asbestos is a naturally occurring and extremely useful mineral and not a man made material. But what is even more astonishing is that the toxicity and potentially harmful nature of asbestos was realised thousands of years ago!

Asbestos has been mined out of the ground and used for over 3000 years! As in more recent times, the ancient civilisations that first used it put it to many uses. The Greeks, Egyptians, Persians and Romans all used asbestos for a variety of purposes including candle wicks, clothing, building materials, insulation, and a heat and flame retardant. Because of these latter properties the word asbestos itself derives from the Greek term for inextinguishable and the Greeks also referred to it as the miracle or magical mineral in recognition of these properties.

The use of asbestos is thought of, by many, as a modern practice but clearly not. However, surely the manifestation of serious health issues arising out of the use of asbestos is a modern phenomenon? Again, the answer to this must regrettably be put in the negative. This is because whilst the ancients realised the huge benefits of asbestos, they also realised that the workers (mostly slaves) who mined for the asbestos mineral from the ground and manufactured items incorporating asbestos were developing lung illnesses. A Roman observer of the time even called for the protection of workers from the inhalation of asbestos fibers by provision and use of a form of early dust mask.

There was a decline in the use of asbestos in the middle ages. During the Industrial Revolution there was an enormous increase in the use of asbestos, more than at any time before. It was now put to an even greater range of uses including insulation in particular for pipes and boilers, steam locomotives, brake and clutch linings, fire doors etc., the uses were almost endless due to its “magical” properties. Millions and millions of tonnes of asbestos were used in these and many other ways over many years until a decline in its use in the 1970s following increasing pressure not to use it due to the, by then, more widely known health risks. However, by this time millions of workers had been exposed to the harmful fibers. In addition to the miners and workers employed directly in the asbestos industry, their family and residents who lived close to the factories were also exposed. It is shocking to realise that often the workers would return home after work covered in asbestos dust looking like “snowmen” and exposing their, often very young, families to it. This has resulted in family members developing the same kinds of often very serious asbestos diseases as the workers themselves developed.

Like the ancients before them, the Victorians began to realise, or at least rediscover, the very dangerous nature of asbestos fibers and the risk to health from asbestos disease. In 1898 The Annual Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories and Workshops to the Government reported ‘Of all the dusty occupations which specifically came under observation in 1898 three … stand out on account of their easily demonstrated danger to the health of workers, and because of ascertained cases of injuries to bronchial tubes and lungs medically attributed to the employment of the sufferers. These occupations were asbestos spinning and carding …. The evil effects of asbestos dust have also attracted my attention, a microscopic examination of this mineral dust which was made by HM Medical Inspector clearly revealed the sharp glass-like jagged nature of the particles and where they are allowed to rise and to remain suspended in the air of a room, in any quantity, the effects have been found to be injurious as might have been expected …. The worker may continue for a very long time before the symptoms of the evil become marked.’ There were many more reports, research papers and changes in legislation to follow aimed at highlighting the risks of asbestos disease to the Government(s) and employers yet despite this growing body of evidence it took nearly another century for an outright ban on the use of asbestos to be implemented! In the meantime millions of workers were being exposed, sowing the seeds of a health crisis now being felt by thousands of these workers who have developed asbestos diseases as a result. These diseases include malignant mesothelioma, asbestos lung cancer, asbestosis, pleural thickening and pleural plaques.

Regrettably, during the very same period the use of asbestos actually increased until the 1970s and despite the changes in legislation designed to protect workers in reality very little action was taken to do so by employers despite all the evidence of the risks of asbestos disease. What is even more regrettable is that the historical record shows that employers continued to expose their workers to asbestos will full knowledge of the risks of asbestos disease and conspired to conceal this information from the workers themselves who, in the vast majority of cases, were not aware of the risks or fully aware of the risks and how they could protect themselves from those risks! Simple steps could have been taken by employers to want the workers and to give them some protection in the form of face masks, breathing apparatus etc.

Unfortunately the historical record shows that big business and the pursuit of big profits got in the way of proper warnings and protection being given to the workers. In pursuit of the prize of these big profits the asbestos companies concealed the inconvenient truth that asbestos is a potential killer from the most vulnerable and at risk. This is a hard fact suffers of asbestos disease have to swallow when they learn about this cover up. It is worth remembering that there is no cure for the asbestos disease known as mesothelioma and sufferers may only have 9 to 12 months to live following diagnosis. It is a fatal and appalling condition.

Nigel Askew is a specialist asbestos lawyer dedicated to assisting sufferers of asbestos disease. For more information visit

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