Asbestos is now a controlled substance in the United Kingdom, but that has not always been the case and even today there is still a large amount of asbestos present in the country as it was widely used for
decades. Taking a look at the history of asbestos use in Britain can help to explain our current attitudes towards it.
Asbestos has been used in various forms around the world for centuries, but the history of asbestos use in the United Kingdom only really began in the late nineteenth century.
During the 1880’s the commercial importation of asbestos began to take off as factory owners sought to introduce more asbestos to the textile industry. During the early years of asbestos use, the substance was widely hailed for its miraculous properties. It was strong, malleable, thermal resistant, a great insulator and waterproof.
Factory owners from a number of different industries began to clamour to use asbestos to improve their existing products.
By 1898, the Chief Inspecting Officer of Factories had begun to notice links between the use of asbestos and the health of factory workers. Although the report primarily focused on the dusty conditions that factory workers were forced to endure, these early reports were precursors for more focused reports on the potential harmful properties of asbestos.
Asbestos was regularly mentioned in many of the reports that followed. By 1907, a leading doctor who specialised in Industrial Disease performed a post mortem on an unnamed person who had spent 14 years working in the asbestos industry in the United Kingdom. The patient’s lungs were found to be dark, stiff and full of scarring. It was reported that all of this man’s colleagues had died from industrial lung conditions.
The government gradually sought to introduce various schemes to provide workers with better access to compensation if they were afflicted by industrial illnesses. Although these schemes were not specifically for people with asbestos-related illnesses, they were available to those who suffered from them.
In the first part of the twentieth century, a number of influential asbestos factories were set
up in the United Kingdom, including Turner and Newall Ltd, which became one of the leading asbestos-related producers in the whole world.
Asbestos products which were produced in the UK included building materials, automobile parts and ship components. As well as being widely used in the United Kingdom, many of these products were exported to global markets.
By the 1960’s international medical research had discovered a strong link between blue asbestos (crocidolite) and a type of cancer called Mesothelioma. This cancer affected the lining of the lungs. A voluntary industry ban was introduced in 1967 to curb the import of blue asbestos into the UK. The ban was voluntary and some manufacturers elected to continue to use and import crocidolite.
In 1968, an occupational health charity suggested that a safety standard should be introduced in factories to keep exposure levels to less than 0.2 fibres per ml of air, however government standards decided to set the level almost ten times higher. This was in part due to pressures from those running the asbestos industry in the United Kingdom. Control levels were gradually lowered over the next 50 years
and they now stand at around 0.1 fibre per cubic metre of air. This level is considered to be a maximum control level rather than a safe exposure level.
In 1985, a national ban on the import and use of brown and blue types of asbestos was introduced. Many businesses also elected to maintain a voluntary ban on white asbestos. This was not formally banned until 1999. The bans did not require property owners or others to get rid of asbestos products. Many people therefore still have asbestos-containing products in their homes, and some of them are not even aware of the presence of asbestos.
Asbestos regulations have continued to develop during the twenty-first century. The United Kingdom now has strong legislation in place to try to protect all workers who may come into contact with asbestos as part of their role.
Employers must do full risk assessments if there is any chance that their employees might be required to work with asbestos. These risk assessments aim to minimise risks for employees. Employees should also be given full training to help them to deal with any asbestos that they come across.
This aims to help them to avoid damaging asbestos which is already in situ.
The UK also has various compensation schemes in place to allow people to claim compensation if they have been affected by asbestos exposure during their working life. These schemes cover people who manufactured asbestos as well as those who perform hazardous tasks like stripping and removing asbestos. However, it is likely that British people will still continue to be affected by asbestos-related illnesses for years to come.