Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral made of several elements. Even in its natural form, it can be “pulled” into a consistency much like pink fibreglass insulation, which is why it was once so incredibly popular for insulating homes in and across the United Kingdom.
However, as far back as the 1960s, people were aware that asbestos was toxic. For this reason, it is no longer legal to use asbestos or products that contain in in homes or other products in the UK.
Although there are more than 100 identified minerals that have asbestos-like properties, there are six different minerals that are formally recognized as asbestos by worldwide governments. Each one has its own unique properties, but each one is also quite dangerous and toxic.
Asbestos used to be a very lucrative product for businesses not only in the UK, but also in the US and other countries around the world. It was inexpensive and easy to collect, and because it’s lightweight, it was also easy to transport. Other beneficial properties of asbestos include:
These days, most of the people who are being treated for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases are men ages 60 and older. Many asbestos related diseases lay dormant for many years before showing symptoms. What’s more, these men worked in facilities or industries in which asbestos was not properly regulated, which meant their levels of exposure were much, much higher than anyone’s level of exposure today.
Anyone working in the following industries prior to 1975 is at the greatest risk of developing asbestosis or mesothelioma:
Startlingly, asbestos has never been banned in the United States. It is still used in manufacturing facilities with extreme caution and can be found in small amounts in more than 3000 products manufactured in the US. However, the “Asbestos Century” in the UK came to an end in 1999, when the government finally banned the use of asbestos in any product at all. This ban followed the EU’s ban on chrysotile, which is more commonly known as “white asbestos”.
Exposure is certainly a risk in countries around the world, and even though asbestos has been banned completely in the UK, products manufactured before the 1999 ban present serious risks to the general public. The most common source of today’s new cases of mesothelioma or asbestosis come from exposure to the mineral in older homes built before the 1970s. Fortunately, it is possible to have your home or place of business surveyed for asbestos, thus helping to make you aware of the risk and giving you options for reducing your exposure.
If you suspect that you or a loved one has been exposed to asbestos, the first thing you should do is make an appointment with your doctor. Though there is no one routine medical test that can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that you will have asbestos-related illness in the future, doctors do use screening tools to help determine your risk. If it is determined that you are at risk for asbestosis or mesothelioma, your next step involves having your home and/or workplace tested for asbestos if these could be factors. You can learn more about how to have any asbestos in your home or workplace removed here.
The first documented asbestos mining operation occurred in 1858 at Ward’s Hill Quarry in Staten Island, New York. The Johns Company mined anthophyllite (one type of asbestos) to sell to factories during the American Industrial Revolution. However, in 1918, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report showing that workers who were around asbestos, whether mining it or working with it in factories, died much sooner than workers who were not exposed to asbestos on the job.
Then, in 1930, a man by the name of Dr. E.R.A. Mereweather, who was a famous researcher at the time, conducted and published a clinical examination of hundreds of people working around asbestos regularly. In his report, he claimed that one in four of these men had a condition he called “asbestosis”. Other conclusions claimed that asbestosis was a latent disease and one that would not show any symptoms for many years, and that in order to prevent asbestosis, it was mandatory for workers to use respirators and for employers to utilize proper ventilation.
Mereweather was the very first to indicate that workers should be warned of the risk of exposure, and he even said that the finished products would continue to create dust that should be reduced and controlled in order to prevent asbestosis, as well. Sadly, his recommendations were not taken seriously, and this meant that tens of thousands of people would die in the decades to come.
Dr. Mereweather’s research did not go entirely unappreciated, however. Dr. Mereweather, along with his partner Dr. C.W. Price, reported that some workers were showing signs of illness with as little as nine months’ exposure to asbestos. As a result, British asbestos factories took action. They took some of Dr. Mereweather’s advice for controlling the dust and exposure, but this only occurred in actual asbestos factories – places where asbestos was processed for use in other factories. Unfortunately, these regulations did not apply to workers who handled asbestos, such as those adding asbestos to paper or cloth or those utilizing asbestos in homebuilding.
Three years later, in 1933, an American insulation worker was the very first individual in the US to receive a diagnosis of asbestosis. However, medical professionals agreed that there were likely hundreds (if not thousands) of cases before this one that were simply misdiagnosed. Back in those days, conditions like tuberculosis were not as well controlled, and methods for diagnosing pulmonary disease were not as advanced as they are today. It is impossible to decipher the number of people who may have died in the US and UK from asbestosis long before the first true diagnosis ever came to fruition.
It wasn’t until 1942 that a doctor named W.C. Heuper (who was also the very first Chief of Environmental Cancer at the National Cancer Institute in the United States) claimed asbestos exposure caused much more than just asbestosis; he claimed it also caused cancer. What’s more, he noted that workers exposed to asbestos in any form – whether in an actual asbestos factory or simply through handling insulation and packaging materials – were at a much higher risk of contracting cancer than workers who were not exposed. By 1949, Dr. Heuper extended his claim, stating that everyone was at risk of cancer due to asbestos exposure, namely because asbestos was a popular material for insulating homes and buildings in both countries worldwide.
Despite warnings for decades, the first large-scale study on the links between cancer and asbestos didn’t take place until 1955. This study found that people working with asbestos were 10 times more likely to contract lung cancer than the rest of the population, which was astounding. Later, in 1960, yet another study was able to confirm numerous reports over the course of decades that asbestos did indeed cause mesothelioma, or a very specific type of cancer in the lungs. Unlike studies before it, the 1960 study also showed that wives and children of asbestos workers also contracted the disease simply due to second-hand exposure.
Despite all the claims, all the studies, and all the sickness, governments continued to ignore the evidence being presented to them. By 1960, still only Great Britain had any kind of safety measures in place for individuals working with asbestos despite more than 200 different renowned publications describing the dangers of asbestos exposure. What’s more, the companies that continued to use asbestos in their products did not even warn the workers they were exposed, and many did not even try to reduce dust or substitute other materials for the asbestos.
It was later discovered that many of the companies who refused to warn workers or take any kind of safety measures knew about the connection between asbestos and cancer as early as the 1930s, but the research reports conducted were altered by the companies themselves so the public would never find out.
In 1967, a British asbestos victim filed a court case against his employer, claiming he was exposed to asbestos without his knowledge and subsequently fell ill. He won his case, and despite his employer’s attempts to appeal, it was upheld by an appeals court in 1971. This was a huge turning point for everyone injured by asbestos, and it opened the door to others who fell ill due to negligent asbestos exposure and contracted asbestosis, mesothelioma, and other diseases related to that exposure.
Believe it or not, the regulations regarding asbestos in the UK were exactly the same between 1931 and 1969 – almost four decades of people working around asbestos without any knowledge or protection. The Asbestos Regulations of 1969 replaced the decades-old prior regulations, and with them, it was no longer just the asbestos manufacturing facilities under fire. This time, the regulations were aimed at any company anywhere in the UK utilizing asbestos in their products. These companies were required to use exhaust ventilation, better handling procedures, and protective equipment, and they also required companies to notify their workers if they were exposed to asbestos on the job.
While the changes to these regulations certainly went a long way toward providing extra protection, they did not eliminate the root cause of asbestosis, mesothelioma, and other diseases. The US government started that trend in 1970, when the Clean Air Act, passed by congress, allowed the American Environmental Protection Agency to list asbestos as a harmful and hazardous pollutant.
Between 1972 and 1974, things finally began to change for the better for workers exposed to asbestos. In the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) created exposure limits designed to prevent sickness and save individual lives. Two years after initiating these limits, OSHA made them even stricture. The Environmental Protection Agency determined that spray-on asbestos insulation, which was once a very popular and affordable means of insulating homes and other products, was a hazardous material, and it was completely banned in the United States.
During this same time, the UK came up with the Health & Safety at Work Act, which puts strict requirements on employers to limit employees’ exposure to asbestos and provide ample information to the general public in various types of workplaces about anything that may affect their overall health and safety.