Asbestos is a naturally occurring, fibrous mineral that has found uses in many products due to its insulating and fire-retardant properties. The Romans called it amiantus, from the Latin, meaning “unsullied”, and wove it into fabrics for clothing and items like napkins and table cloths. Stories relate that the latter would be simply thrown into a fire to clean it and would emerge pristine and white once more. It was used by the Greeks before that and although they were aware of its health risks they chose to ignore them.
Asbestos continued to find its way into items right up until the middle ages, when its popularity waned, but experienced a resurgence during the industrial revolution.
As well as its fire-resistance and insulating properties the strength of the fibres led the mineral to be used in a huge variety of construction materials and other products.
There are two forms of asbestos, serpentine and amphibole, both of which are made of impure magnesium silicate. In its natural form the ore is made up of fibrous strands that break down into smaller and smaller fibres as the material is disturbed. It is this property that causes asbestos to hang in the air for longer and to enter the lungs, bypassing their natural defences against dust.
Within the main forms we break down asbestos into three main types. Chrysotile is a serpentine asbestos and amphibole asbestos includes amosite and crocidolite. Chrysotile is the most commonly found asbestos today with amosite often found in insulating materials such as building boards and crocidolite commonly used in cement products.
The latest death rates within the construction industry show a broadly flat rate but there are still around 38 fatal injuries per year. Contrast this with an estimated 3,500 road deaths per year.
Asbestos related diseases remain the biggest cause of death in the construction industry. Mesothelioma, alone, was responsible for 2,595 deaths in 2016 and this figure is rising as more people who were exposed prior to the 1980s present symptoms.
To combat this the Health & Safety Executive launched their Hidden Killer Campaign in 2008. This seeks to educate people involved in the construction industry and the general public about the dangers of asbestos containing materials and where they are likely to be found.