A is for Asbestos


The term asbestos derives from the Greek language meaning to be “inextinguishable” or “unquenchable”. Asbestos is the common name given to several naturally occurring minerals which have unique chemical & physical properties. These unique properties were recognised and utilized in order to create building materials with good thermal and chemical resistance as well as adding strength to these products.


There are 6 recognised types of asbestos which have been used in a range of building material over the last 150 years in the UK. Amosite, Chrysotile, Crocidolite, Anthophyllite & Tremolite. Of these 6 types 3 are much more common, Amosite ( brown asbestos) Crocidolite ( blue) & Chrysotile ( white).


Asbestos takes the form of extremely strong, thin needle like flexible fibres which are very resistant to both heat and chemicals such as acids and alkalis. The most widespread uses of asbestos are in fireproofing and thermal insulation such as textiles and boards and pipe lagging and vessel insulations. Composites of asbestos such as cement, resins & plastics were also commonly manufactured.


It is this stability of the fibres which makes asbestos so hazardous to health. The body is unable to process them such as dissolving them as it would with synthetic or organic fibres or other matter. Depending on the circumstances; exposure, the individual, other health issues and several other factors asbestos related illnesses and diseases can development in various parts of the lungs with recognised latency periods of 20-60 years.



Below is an extract from a paper in Biological Effects of Asbestos, published by the New York Academy of Science, 1965. D. W Hills. This gives a frightening insight into the once thriving asbestos industry in the UK.


“In spite of large expansions of asbestos textiles in the UK over the years it was only towards the end of the 1920's that the special biological effects of asbestos were recognised.

At the time, some machines were ventilated and the general conditions equalled those in the cotton textile mills of the period but they left a lot to be desired. Fibre was blended on the floor by hand and most machines were fed manually. Looms were only partially ventilated and a worker who remembers those days has said that asbestos fibre was literally knee-deep under them. The dust and stout fibre that dropped on the floor under the cording machines has to be cleared by hand; this, and the stripping (or cleaning) of the cords also by hand, was a very dusty and dirty operations and whilst it was being carried out a man could not be recognised at a distance of six or eight feet. Fibre was screened on open vibratory screens, the short fibres being allowed to fall on the floor while the “overs” were bagged by hand. The ventilation systems exhausted into settling chambers which were cleaned out by a gang of men every Saturday morning. The men, wearing respirators, went into the settling chambers, shovelled the dust into wheelbarrow which were then wheeled along and their contents tipped down a shute where it was mixed with water to form a sludge for disposal. The dust clouds formed during this tipping operation can be imagined.”





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