Why was asbestos used?

Asbestos Roof

The use of Asbestos started in the late 1800s when it was mined and used commercially in North America. During World War II, its use increased significantly. Since then, it has been used in many industries, especially the building and construction industry.

There are many reasons that asbestos is used in building materials but it’s mainly used because it’s strong, cheap, insulating and widely available. However, it can also be very dangerous, claiming around 5,000 deaths per year in the UK, asbestos is construction’s largest killer known as the ‘hidden killer’.

The primary purpose of using asbestos in the first place was to protect workers, but many of its product manufacturers knew from the beginning that working with the mineral caused harmful health effects. Despite all the efforts to use it safely, asbestos continues to be a danger to human health today, causing serious diseases such as asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer.

In the Past

Archeologists discovered asbestos fibers in debris dating back to the Stone Age, about 750,000 years ago. Since then it has had a variety of uses that changed over the years, with events such as the industrial revolution.

Between 2000-3000 B.C., embalmed bodies of Egyptian pharaohs were wrapped in asbestos cloth to protect the bodies from deterioration. A shroud was one of the main early uses of asbestos until its harmful effects were discovered and it was stopped. In Finland, clay pots dating back to 2500 B.C. contained asbestos fibers, which were believed to strengthen the pots and make them resistant to fire.  As early as 4000 B.C., it is believed that asbestos’s long hair-like fibers were used for wicks in lamps and candles.

While the Greeks and Romans discovered the unique properties of asbestos, they also observed its harmful effects on those who mined the material from ancient stone quarries.

By the end of the first millennium, cremation cloths, mats and wicks for temple lamps were fashioned from chrysotile asbestos from Cyprus and tremolite asbestos from northern Italy.

Paper made from asbestos was discovered in Italy in the early 1700s. By the 1800s, the Italian government was utilizing asbestos fibers in its bank notes. In the mid-1850s the Parisian Fire Brigade also wore jackets and helmets made from asbestos.

However, asbestos manufacturing was not a prospering industry until the late 1800s, when the start of the Industrial Revolution helped support strong and steady growth of the industry. That’s when the practical and commercial uses of asbestos became widespread. 

Common Uses

American industries used many types of asbestos products for construction, manufacturing and chemical refining during the 20th century. It is still commonly used today but especially in developing countries, such as Russia, China, India and Mexico.

Asbestos containing products are in all kinds of buildings, schools, hospitals, hotels, homes, offices and many others as well. Advertised as a wonder product by suppliers, it was in high demand by builders and property owners.

Even though it is banned in the UK today, it is still present in a great number of buildings. It is mixed into the fabric of the building or within previously installed products. Since it was used in so many building products in the past, it is hard to know which ones contain asbestos.

Some examples of building products that contain asbestos include:

  • Cement
  • Roof Tiles
  • Ceiling Tiles
  • Floor Tiles
  • Loose Insulation
  • Insulating Boards
  • Textured Coatings
  • Sprayed Coatings
  • Fire Doors
  • Fire Blankets
  • Pipe Lagging
  • Downpipes
  • Rainwater Goods
  • Soffits and Fascias
  • Cladding
  • Electrical Panels
  • Window Sills
  • Partitions
  • Sink Pads
  • Toilet Seats

Other Uses:

  • Automotive and airplane clutches
  • Car, truck and airplane brake pads and linings, seals and gaskets
  • Cigarette Filters: used in cigarettes in the 1950s
  • Consumer Products: pot holders, ashtray coasters, wicking for gas ranges, fake snow for Christmas decorations
  • Insulation linings in hair dryers and cooking appliances
  • Laboratory Equipment; Bunsen burner mats, gauze pads and gloves
  • Makeup; cosmetics made from contaminated talc
  • Talcum Powder, Baby powder and other personal hygiene products made from contaminated talc that contains asbestos

Why Asbestos?

Asbestos was used because of its several properties that make it the ideal construction material. The main ones being that it is a strong, cheap and abundantly and easily available. Asbestos occurs naturally in mineral deposits around the world. It is also durable, since it is resistant to heat, electricity and chemical corrosion.

 Some other factors that make it brilliant for construction are:

  • Sound Insulation
  • Heat Insulation
  • Fire Protection
  • Resistance to Chemicals
  • Resistance to Water
  • Resistance to Electricity

How to Spot It

It is not possible to identify asbestos just by looking at it. A person trained in fibre identification with a special polarized light microscope can only recognise it. There are certified labs throughout the country that can identify asbestos in building materials, they will take the sample for you and then test it themselves. Do not try to take samples yourself unless specifically instructed on how to do so, as it could risk exposure to the airborne fibres if proper precautions aren’t taken.


As asbestos gained popularity in the 50s-70s, public awareness of its health hazards grew. Asbestos diseases are slow and painful and can take decades to develop. Those who are dying today may have been exposed in the 70’s or 80’s. In 1985 the UK prevented some asbestos use, and by 1999 all types of asbestos-containing materials were banned.

The fibres in asbestos can have adverse effects on your health if inhaled. The fibers are so strong that the body cannot break them down, and they are so sharp that they slice into the lung tissue. It can cause asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs that leads to breathing problems and heart failure. Workers who manufacture or use asbestos products have high exposure to it and are often affected with asbestosis. 

Inhalation of asbestos can also cause lung cancer and mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the lining of the chest and abdomen lining. It may be linked to cancer of the stomach, intestines and rectum as well. There is no known safe exposure to asbestos. The greater the exposure, the greater the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease. 

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