Asbestos, a material we now know as the silent killer, refers to a group naturally occurring fibres that can be found in large deposits under the earth. They are fine, durable and fire-retardant, making them ideal for a number of applications.

We now know the dangers that asbestos poses, but for over 6,000 years we used it for everything from insulating steam engines to keeping our homes warm. Let's look back at the long and bizarre history of asbestos, and take a moment to appreciate what proper work health and safety can do to minimise its effects.

The origins of asbestos

Asbestos deposits as old as 750,000 years have been discovered by archaeologists and it was used as early as 4,000 BC, as the wicks for candles. Fast forward around 1,000 years and Egyptian pharaohs were embalmed and buried in thick sheets of asbestos to help preserve their bodies. This practise continued and changed for thousands of years and was common in a number of cultures.

Asbestos was used for countless purposes throughout history.
Asbestos was used for countless purposes throughout history.

Closer to 400 BC, Ancient Greeks cremated bodies wrapped in Asbestos to keep their ashes from mixing with those of the fire. Historians say that this helped birth the word asbestos, deriving from ancient Greek term, sasbestos, meaning inextinguishable or unquenchable. 

Around 755 AD King Charlemagne of France used asbestos tablecloths during feasts to prevent fires that were often caused by intoxicated revellers knocking over candles. Asbestos continued to be used this way, as a useful novelty, until the late 1800s when the industrial revolution began. 

Asbestos in Australia

By the dawn of the 19th century, major Asbestos mines had opened in Canada and South Africa, America, Italy and Russia. total worldwide production increased to 30,000 tonnes annually. At this point the fibres were increasingly used in industrial and residential settings for fireproofing, soundproofing and insulation.

During this time asbestos mines starting popping up throughout the country, particularly in NSW and WA. The British Royal Commission raised concerns about its health effects after several deaths were caused by the fibre in factories throughout the UK, but nonetheless mining and use of asbestos continued at an unprecedented rate. 

By 1910 world production exceeded 100,000 tonnes, and homes around Australia were being built with asbestos throughout their structures. This use peaked in the 50s, 60s and 70s when it could be found in most homes built in Australia.

At long last: Asbestos ban

As the use of asbestos increased, so too did the health dangers we now know are associated with it. In 1935 reports started emerging on the effect of asbestos dust on the lungs of workers in the James Hardie factory in Perth.

Later on, health professionals and inspectors started warning the owners of a large blue asbestos mine in Wittenoom, Western Australia, that their workers were at great risk and would contract chest diseases within six months.

Asbestos was finally banned in Australia in 2003.
Asbestos was finally banned in Australia in 2003.

In the late 1980s asbestos victims were too many to ignore, as the death toll in the Wittenoom mine climbed past 500 and several other cases starting popping up nationwide. The Asbestos Disease Foundation of Australia and workers unions pressured state and national governments to act, until finally, in December 2003 the use of asbestos and all materials containing asbestos were banned nationwide. 

From here plans to safely dispose of asbestos were put into place nationwide. It's still present in thousands of industrial buildings and homes throughout Australia, but it appears that we are finally heading in the right direction and putting the dangers of asbestos behind us.

There's still so much work to do. If you or your employees work in at-risk professions, ensure that you have the best training available to ensure asbestos-related diseases remain a thing of the past.

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