History of asbestos in the uk

History of asbestos in the UK

History of asbestos in the uk

The history of asbestos in the UK: From ‘Magical Mineral’ to national health hazard
The danger of asbestos is now fully known and respected within the UK, but that has not always been the case. Few could have predicted the chequered future asbestos would have when it was first documented as being used in this country nearly 150 years ago. From its widespread use to its ultimate decline; in this article we’ll roll back the years to the introduction of asbestos in the UK and explore when it first became apparent that this once popular material had a serious impact on health.

When was asbestos first used in the UK?

The first documented use of asbestos in the UK was in the latter half of the 1870s, where it was used in numerous different industries, from ship manufacturing to the construction of power plants. It was often referred to as a ‘magic mineral’ due to the outstanding performance it provided when used in projects for its insulation and fireproofing properties. Remarkably, there are even references to asbestos in ancient Chinese culture, where it was noted that it could be woven to create items which could withstand high temperatures.

When were the health risks of asbestos first identified?

You would be forgiven for thinking that public recognition of asbestos being hazardous to health was a relatively recent occurrence, but society has been aware of the dangers associated with asbestos for almost a century after the premature death of Nellie Kershaw in 1924. Unfortunately for Nellie, she had been tasked with spinning asbestos fibre into yarn at a textile factory, where she had worked for 7 years before succumbing to severe lung fibrosis. The pathologist who was investigating her corpse found asbestos fibres concentrated in her lungs. In his report, the pathologist William Cooke noted down the cause of death as asbestosis, coining the term which has stuck ever since.
The unfortunate case of Nellie Kershaw brought the dangers of asbestos to the minds of the public, but the first documented link between asbestos and fibrosis of the lungs was actually first reported by a doctor called Montague Murray in 1899. He concluded that his 33 year old male patient had asbestos fibres in his lungs, which he inhaled while working in an asbestos textile factory for 14 years. The patient told Murray that he was the sole survivor out of 14 colleagues who worked at the factory.

When did the UK government first act on Asbestos use?

History of asbestos in the uk

The widely publicised death of Nellie Kershaw drew a lot of attention to asbestos and the employees who were working with it day in day out. The press brought to light that asbestos was the culprit and with the public demanding answers, the government decided to look at the issue. They commissioned their chief of factories and a qualified engineer to conduct a review on worker’s health within the industries that worked with asbestos. Their findings were shocking, discovering that 1 in 5 of those in work, who had been working with the material for more than 5 years had asbestosis, with that number rising to 4 in 5 for those who had been working for 20 years or more. It was clear that the government needed to act, the report was conclusive.
In 1931, the government imposed regulations to limit employee’s exposure to asbestos, while introducing the monitoring of employee’s health to monitor what impact the remaining exposure was having. Compensation was offered for the first time to those factory workers who were affected by exposure, a key win for worker’s rights. Enforcing exposure limits made items dotted around the factory that were once invisible due to the number of fibres in the air visible again, something that is unimaginable in present times!

What happened to the asbestos industry next?

The following decades saw much wrangling between employees, employers, experts, and the government. There were numerous attempts to further limit exposure to asbestos, especially during the 1950s were an investigation by British physician Richard Doll showed that employees working in textile factories that worked with asbestos had a 10x greater risk of death by lung cancer than those in the general population.

Understanding Asbestos

Next in 1960 pathologist Chris Wagner reported 33 cases of mesothelioma, a cancer that affects the lining of the lungs in people who worked in and around an asbestos mine in South African. Startlingly, 18 of those affected did not work in the mine, they just happened to commute around it or lived with others who worked in the mine. This proved that asbestos could cause disease at much lower exposure levels than previously thought. This was later confirmed in a case control study in London, where life around an asbestos factory was monitored. It was discovered that out of those who had confirmed exposure to asbestos, almost a third of them lived within half a mile of the factory. This study and many more like it proved that no level of background exposure to asbestos was safe, leading to the demise of the asbestos industry within the UK. Unfortunately, the overuse of asbestos containing boarding in the construction industry continued unnoticed and out of the reach of regulation during the 1970s, with this being the root cause of many of the cases of asbestos related disease today with carpenters taking the brunt of these cases. Asbestos would go on to be entirely banned in 1999, over 100 years on from its first use!

The modern day

History of asbestos in the uk

The number of deaths attributed to asbestos related disease was expected to peak in the UK in 2020, but this does not detract from the fact that the UK has the highest rate of mesothelioma in the world. It is predicted that even in 2050, there will still be around 500 incidents of mesothelioma in the UK annually, a mind-blowing statistic.
In this article we have covered the deadly damage to health asbestos has caused over decades, which only emphasises the point that the safe removal and disposal of asbestos is a key priority. Safety is not something to gamble with, so do take the risks of asbestos exposure seriously and leave it to the professionals!

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