History of Asbestos – The legacy

History of asbestos production

Pre-history

Evidence of asbestos mining has been found in Cyprus from as long ago as 3,000 B.C. Analysis of archaeological finds in Finland from a slightly later date shows that asbestos fibres were used to
reinforce earthenware pots, and there is evidence that this practice spread within Scandinavia and Russia.
Tremolite and chrysotile asbestos were mined by the Romans in the Italian Alps.

asbestos burial shrouds
A Roman glass crematorium urn,
containing bones and traces of
asbestos burial shrouds
(Image courtesy of the British Museum)

History of asbestos – Early reported uses

The history of asbestos us started in AD 800, when Emperor Charlemagne was reported as having a tablecloth that never needed cleaning. When it became dirty, he simply threw it into the fire, and it came out clean and unburnt.

The Greeks and Romans may have done the same thing, as reported by the famous historian Strabo in his “Geography” and Pliny the Elder in his “Natural History”.
It seems to have been a global habit since Marco Polo reported a cloth that “thrown into the fire, remains incombustible”.

history of asbestos
A purse, made out of tremolite asbestos, brought to London by Benjamin
Franklin, in 1725. He sold it to one of the founding fathers of the British Museum.
It is presently in the Natural History Museum
(Image courtesy of the Natural History Museum)

History of asbestos – First large commercial mines

Asbestos is known to have been commercially mined in Russia in 1720. Enormous deposits of chrysotile asbestos were found in 1844 near Asbest city. Even today the entire area looks like a vast
open cast mine.

asbest city
“Asbest City” mine (Russia)

History of asbestos – The industrial revolution and the steam age

Modern asbestos mining in industrialised nations began expending rapidly from the late 1800s, probably due to steam technology. Vast chrysotile asbestos reserves were discovered in 1877 at Danville in Quebec, Canada, and have been mined until very recently (2011).
Crocidolite asbestos was discovered in the Northern Cape province of South Africa in 1812 but was not commercially produced until 1893. The properties of crocidolite made it particularly well suited for spraying, and sprayed crocidolite asbestos products were first marketed in the UK in 1931 by J.W. Roberts Ltd (JWR) at its factory in Armley, Leeds.
Amosite asbestos deposits in Penge in the Transvaal province went into proper production in 1916.

History of asbestos – Mass production and usage

By 1920, the world was using nearly 200,000 tonnes of asbestos, of which 150,000 tonnes were consumed by the US, 40,000 by Europe, 7,000 tonnes by Asia and the Middle East, and 2,000 tonnes by Africa. By 1930 this had almost doubled to 388,000 tonnes. By 1940 the figure was 522,000 tonnes. The second world war and subsequent re-construction led to a boom in the use of asbestos. The US alone used over half a million tonnes of asbestos every year from 1947 to 1979. Interestingly, it only started using the most dangerous types (crocidolite and Amosite) in 1956.
By 1960, global asbestos consumption was well over 2 million tonnes. In 1970, consumption was at 3.5 million tonnes and still rising. In 1975, it was 4.3 million tonnes and in 1980 consumption was at 4.7 million tonnes.

History of asbestos – The decline

The decline in asbestos use only began in 1985 when production fell to 4.3 million tonnes. The decline was slow. In 1990 production was still 4 million tonnes, despite major bans already being in force around the world. Finally, in 1995 significant reduction started to take place. Consumption had almost halved from the peak to 2.5 million tonnes, although even by the year 2000 consumption was still comparable with 1960 at 2 million tonnes. Today (2016), world production remains relatively steady at 2.03 million tonnes.


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