At its very peak in 1973, 183,000 tonnes of asbestos were imported into the UK. However, while we commonly associate the use of asbestos with building materials in the 20th Century, we can actually trace its use back to 3000 BC, when asbestos cloth was used to protect the embalmed bodies of Egyptian Pharaohs.
In fact, asbestos has featured consistently throughout our history, often because of its properties as a thermal insulator. For example, in ancient Greece it is believed that asbestos shrouds were used to wrap around the dead to prevent their ashes from being mixed with the fire. There is also a legend that in 755 AD, King Charlemagne of France ordered a tablecloth made of asbestos to prevent accidental fires during celebratory feasts.
Beyond its thermal properties, asbestos has many other desirable features too, so it’s no wonder that we can trace its use throughout the ages:
- it’s useful for moisture control
- has good chemical resistance
- has high tensile strength
- it’s a good electrical insulator
- it’s a good sound insulator
Following the industrial revolution in the 19th century, asbestos production in the UK grew to over 30,000 tonnes per year, and shortly after, in 1906, the first death of an asbestos worker from pulmonary failure was documented.
In was not until the 1970s though (when production was at its highest levels) that we developed a better understanding of the impact of asbestos on those working with it, and awareness of the dangers of exposure to asbestos started to surface. A gradual decline of its use ensued, starting with a voluntary ban on blue asbestos in 1970, until a total ban on the use of all asbestos was introduced in 1999.
We are still very much living with the legacy of asbestos, and it can be found in 500,000 buildings in the UK today. Indeed, it is still being mined in some parts of the world, with some two million tonnes produced in 2016. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates 125 million people around the world are still being exposed to asbestos in the workplace every year with an estimated 105,000 deaths.
In the UK, The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations came into force in 2002 to ensure the safe handling and maintenance of any asbestos containing materials in buildings and have been updated through the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 and 2012.
To find out more about the obligations of building owners under the Asbestos Regulations, please visit http://www.socotec.co.uk/our-services/built-environment/asbestos-management-and-consultancy/