Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that has been used for thousands of years due to its strength and resistance to heat, electricity, and chemical erosion. It was used by the ancient Greeks and was also widely used in Persia and China. During the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, its use grew rapidly, particularly in factories as an insulating and fire-resistant product. Commercial mines began to be developed in the late 1800s, and by the mid-20th century, asbestos was being widely used in the construction industry as well as in the ship-building industry, brake pads, and clutch discs for vehicles.
However, warnings of the hazards to health from asbestos were already being published as early as the 1930s, particularly in asbestos mining towns. Medical research at that time revealed a connection between prolonged exposure to asbestos fibers and lung diseases. Despite this, huge amounts of asbestos were used during World War II by the US Navy in the building of ships. It wasn’t until many years later and into the beginning of the 21st century that all forms of asbestos were finally banned in many countries, including the UK, US, and Australia.
Today, over 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer and mesothelioma, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Despite this, not all countries have yet banned the mining, export or import of the chrysotile form of asbestos. Canada, for example, continues to mine and export chrysotile to developing countries in Asia such as India, Indonesia, and The Philippines. Buildings constructed as late as the 1980s can still contain a variety of asbestos products, such as industrial roofing, asbestos cement walls, and asbestos roofs on outbuildings, even in countries where its use is now banned.