Historic Blunders: Asbestos

18th June 2004 at 01:00
Tired of washing tea towels? Here's a handy tip from the Ancient Greeks. Take some asbestos fibre and weave it into cloth. When the cloth gets grubby, simply throw it into the fire and, hey presto! It's as clean as new. The Greeks knew that asbestos was flame-proof. But they also knew that slaves who worked with the fibres suffered from lung problems.

Come the industrial age, however, such worries were overlooked, so great was the demand for an indestructible substance that could be spun, woven, or turned into a cement and moulded.

In 1805, a source of so-called "woolstone" was discovered in South Africa, and soon this fibrous silicate was being used to insulate steam engines. In 1850, huge deposits were uncovered in Quebec and three years later Parisian firemen were sporting asbestos helmets and jackets. By the 1860s, it was turning up in everything from lagging to gaskets. European factories began making asbestos boards and in 1896, Ferodo, an English company, began using a mixture of asbestos and resin in brake linings.

When a Viennese physician stated that inhalation of asbestos dust caused emaciation and lung problems, nobody seemed much bothered. Clearly, it was too late to prevent the rise of this versatile mineral.

In the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West was equipped with an asbestos broom and during the war combatants on all sides valued the flame-proof material. But it was the postwar building boom that gave asbestos its biggest break. By the time health concerns began to re-emerge in the 1960s, schools and hospitals were literally packed with the stuff.

Today, the microscopic asbestos needles are known to cause several diseases, including mesothelioma, cancer of the lung and chest lining that can take 40 years to develop. These diseases kill around 3,500 people in Britain each year, and numbers could eventually treble.

By 1999, Britain had banned the import and use of all asbestos and today a new industry is thriving... one which specialises in the safe removal and disposal of this once prized mineral.

David Newnham

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