Whilst the danger of asbestos was only realised in the UK in the 1930s, asbestos has been mined for centuries.
From its 'magic' properties to its uses in Hollywood, the history of asbestos is filled with fascinating stories that often end in tragedy and heartbreak.
Scroll down our timeline to explore the history of asbestos from its original discovery.
Asbestos is mixed with clay to create ceramic utensils and pots. Many of the ancient civilisations then went on to use asbestos in this way because of its fire-resistance. It was thought to be a magical property for a substance to have.
Asbestos is discussed in written scripture by Greek philosopher, Theophrastus. The term asbestos means, "inextinguishable" and they referred to the most common type of asbestos, chyssoltile, as "gold".
The Greeks wove asbestos into slaves' clothing but once its 'magical powers' were discovered, it was treated more like gold. Asbestos was used to keep the vestal virgins' wicks alight and it was woven into clothing for kings and queens. It was also used for the first time as insulation in buildings and ovens.
It wasn't long before the detrimental effects of asbestos were documented. Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist, reported on the commonality of "sickness of the lung" between slaves who worked in the asbestos mines. He discouraged people from buying slaves who had a history of working near asbestos.
The Roman Emperor Charlemagne died of pleurisy, an inflammation of the lung membranes. He supposedly had a tablecloth made of asbestos that he threw into the fire after every meal to clean it of food and grease and re-laid it on the table the next time he sat down to eat.
Asbestos was known as 'The Wool of the Salamander". It was used for insulation for armour and as a talisman for people who were duped into believing the cross shaped asbestos had been cut directly from the cross that Jesus Christ of Nazareth had died on. Travelling merchants would demonstrate its 'magical power' by tossing it on a fire and reveal that it was undamaged.
An Italian scientist, Giovanni Aldini, designed and manufactured clothing made from asbestos. Its heat resistance was tested some years later by a Mr Charbert. Whilst wearing the asbestos clothing, he walked into an oven with a steak. He walked back out unharmed with a well-done steak in his hands.
The asbestos industry began on a large scale. The Johns Company began mining for asbestos to use for insulation. Back in the UK, asbestos became popular during the Industrial Revolution.
The dangerous effects of asbestos were criticised in an annual Factory Inspector Report. 8 years later in 1906 the first death reported to have been cause by asbestos was recorded at Charring Cross hospital. An asbestos worker had passed away from lung failure as a result of exposure to the dangerous substance.
Turner and Newall Ltd, world leading producer of asbestos opened. Nellie Kershaw, began working for the company at the age of 12. She worked for Turner and Newall for 19 years but had to retire because of ill health. Whilst she was given a certificate of ill health, she was unable to qualify for sickness benefit because her illness was occupationally-related. She died of asbestosis, leaving behind a husband and son.
Asbestos Industry Regulations were introduced but largely failed at their attempt to regulate exposure to asbestos for workers. The mining for asbestos continued as did the amount of people falling victim to asbestos related illnesses. Asbestos was being used in hairdryers, floor tiles, toys, oven gloves, gutters, and clothing. Surgeons were even using asbestos to close incisions after heart and lung operations.
In 1939, the Oscar winning Wizard of Oz depicted a young Judy Garland falling asleep in a field, only to be awoken by falling flakes of snow. In the Golden era of Hollywood, it was common to use flakes of asbestos as a substitute for real snow on screen. Asbestos was also used for falling snow in the film Holiday Inn and for settled snow in It's A Wonderful Life.
The use of asbestos on film sets as fake snow was discontinued when World War 2 began. Asbestos was used to line war ships and so the demand was high for the substance.
The first casualty as a result mining asbestos in the town of Wittenoon was recorded. The secluded town in the outback of Australia was home to 20,000 residents who had moved to the oasis because of the promise of work and prosperity. Wittenoon was an asbestos mining town until 1966 when the mine was closed down. The town was struck off the map in 2007 after it was abandoned by all of its residents.
The news of the dangers of asbestos was still slowly making its way around the world, but was often ignored by the general public. Asbestos was often played with by young children and in County Durham it is reported that children used the hazardous substance to create cricket stumps and to mark out a game of hopscotch. Asbestos was falling like dust on houses and people alike.
The first time a claimant won a case against their place of work because of their exposure to asbestos happened in the early 1970s. It was only 3 years later that the Health and Safety at Work Act came into force and ensured that employers were responsible for the duty of care of their employees.
Despite the widely known knowledge that asbestos causes cancer, it was still widely used as a building material, particularly in the shipbuilding industry. Hollywood star Steve McQueen died from mesothelioma, putting it down to his early days in the U.S Marine Corps where he was exposed to asbestos on board the ships.
The Asbestos Licensing Regulations were introduced and contractors working with asbestos were required to get a license from the Health and Safety Executive. The Asbestos Prohibition and Product Safety Regulations were also enacted in 1985. They banned the use of blue and brown asbestos which equated to 5% of all asbestos used.
A final ban on all asbestos was enforced by The Asbestos Prohibition Regulations.
An NHS consultant Anaesthetist, Andrew Lawson, died of mesothelioma aged 55. He wrote in a letter, "It seems that there may have been a lot of asbestos in the tunnels at Guy's Hospital, where I spent 6 years training… of 4 doctors who trained at Guy's hospital and who subsequently developed mesothelioma in the past 5 years, I am the only one left alive."
The US Geological Survey found that 2 million metric tons of asbestos are still being produced around the world. The 5 countries that were producing the most asbestos were: Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Brazil and India. The production in these countries continues even today.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported the worrying statistics on the 125 million people worldwide who are still being exposed to asbestos as part of their job. 107,000 deaths a year are due to past exposure to asbestos.
A report was released that claimed staff at Manchester's The Christie hospital had been exposed to the deadly substance, "unknowingly". In the same year, the All Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health called for new regulations that would hopefully eliminate asbestos in the workplace by 2035.
An inquest was held into the death of teacher, Elizabeth Belt, from mesothelioma. It was found that Elizabeth was exposed to asbestos dust through years of pinning her pupil's artwork to pin boards which contained asbestos.
After Lucie Stephens' mum, a retired teacher, died of mesothelioma in June 2016, Lucie began a petition to raise awareness of the danger students, teachers and school staff are in every day at work. The signatures keep coming.
If you have been affected by an asbestos related disease such as mesothelioma, our specialist Industrial Disease solicitors can advise you on the best steps to take when making a claim.
Diagnosis of an asbestos related disease can be extremely traumatic. Our lawyers, who have dealt with many cases of this sort, can provide a personalised and empathetic approach to your case.
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