8 May /14


Early uses in translations by Trevisa around about 1400 describe asbestos as a material that once lit can never be put out. Originally the word comes from the Greek meaning inextinguishable and was applied to some sort of magic stone which never existed.

The idea of a mineral which can provide protection against fire on an industrial basis came slowly, as it was realised that the material has properties which slowed the spread of fire. Mining for the fire retardant material began near Quebec in the 1870s. For a long time, the world’s biggest asbestos mining took place in a town appropriately called Asbestos where mining was discontinued 3 years ago.

Asbestos has many advantages in stopping the spread of fires and was used on a widespread basis in construction.

However, there was a very big downside. It caused asbestosis. The first known case was Nellie Kershaw who died of “asbestos poisoning” in 1924 as a result of working in an asbestos factory where she working spinning asbestos into fabric. At the age of 13 she started working with the material and died at the age of 33 without any compensation or any payments either from social security or from her employer. Her death resulted into a government inquiry. After concluding that two thirds of those working with asbestos for 20 years suffered from asbestosis, the British government initiated the first national regulations on controlling the asbestos industry which was passed in 1932. Health and safety at work became a serious issue.

From this point onward, momentum to remove asbestos from manufacturing and reducing any exposure to asbestos products. But it was relatively slow work. This is exemplified in the response of Mr. Brown (the owner of a company that produced asbestos) about whether his employees should work until they drop dead, without being informed of the danger of asbestos was “Yes. We save a lot of money that way”. It was not long before asbestos-related cases put companies such as Mr. Brown’s out of business, but also Owens-Corning. The death of the famous actor Steve McQueen put the negative effects in the spotlight. He died of asbestos-related disease in 1980. Since then almost 100 companies with a link to asbestos has filed for bankruptcy or have gone bankrupt in the United States alone.

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