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Asbestos: The Invisible Threat and the Essential Role of Masks and Respirators

Posted by Gareth Coxon at

Asbestos: The Invisible Threat and the Essential Role of Masks and Respirators


Asbestos: The Invisible Threat and the Essential Role of Masks and Respirators

Asbestos, a term that triggers concern and dread, has a rich and complicated history that spans several thousand years. With roots tracing back to the ancient world, asbestos quickly became popular due to its unique properties, only for its lethal implications to be discovered much later. This article aims to delve into the intricate chronicle of asbestos, exploring its rise, subsequent fall, and its enduring legacy. 

The Ancient World's Affair with Asbestos

Asbestos, a naturally occurring material, can be found across the globe. Archaeological evidence suggests that the use of asbestos fibres dates back to the Stone Age, approximately 750,000 years ago. Suggestive of their early knowledge about its fire-resistant properties, it is believed that ancient civilisations used asbestos for creating wicks for lamps and candles around 4000 B.C.
 
Between 2000-3000 B.C., Egyptians embalmed their pharaohs using asbestos cloth to shield the bodies from deterioration. In Finland, remnants of clay pots enriched with asbestos fibres dating back to 2500 B.C. were discovered. These pots, strengthened by asbestos, were fire-resistant.
 
The ancient societies of Greece and Rome also harnessed the unique properties of asbestos. However, they were among the first to document its detrimental effects on those involved in its mining and processing. Strabo, a Greek geographer, and Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian and philosopher, noted a "sickness of the lungs" in slaves exposed to asbestos.
 
Quick Fact: Some scholars believe that the term "asbestos" originates from the ancient Greek word sasbestos, which translates to "inextinguishable" or "unquenchable". This term perfectly captures the material's resistance to heat.
 

Asbestos Through the Middle Ages and Beyond

Asbestos continued to be in use through the Middle Ages, with King Charlemagne of France using asbestos tablecloths to prevent accidental fires during feasts. The king also wrapped his deceased generals in asbestos shrouds.
  
By the end of the first millennium, asbestos was commonly used in creating cremation cloths, mats, and wicks for temple lamps. In 1095, during the First Crusade, warriors used asbestos bags filled with flaming pitch and tar as weaponry. In 1280, Marco Polo documented the asbestos clothing made by Mongolians, which was fire-resistant.
 
As the centuries progressed, asbestos became increasingly commercialised, with its mining becoming industrialised in the 1800s.
 

The Commercialisation and Mining of Asbestos

The commercialisation and mining of asbestos escalated dramatically during the late 1800s, with the Industrial Revolution fuelling its growth. The myriad applications of asbestos, coupled with its resistance to chemicals, heat, water, and electricity, made it an ideal insulator for steam engines, turbines, boilers, ovens, and electrical generators, the driving forces of the Industrial Revolution.
  
In the 19th century, asbestos mining became widespread, with countries such as Scotland, Germany, England, and Italy establishing large asbestos industries. Australia began mining asbestos in Jones Creek, New South Wales, in the 1880s. By the early 1900s, asbestos was being mined in Finland and South Africa, with the latter discovering a new form of asbestos, amosite (brown asbestos).
 
Quick Fact: The Industrial Revolution played a crucial role in transforming asbestos mining and manufacturing into a thriving intercontinental enterprise.
 

Increase in Asbestos Production

The production of asbestos witnessed a dramatic increase in the early 1900s. Both children and women joined the workforce, preparing and spinning raw fibres while men toiled in the mines.
  
Before the late 1800s, the mining of asbestos was not mechanised and was a labour-intensive process. However, with the realisation of its potential and the growing demand, asbestos mining became industrialised, with steam-driven machinery and new mining methods replacing manual labour. The applications of asbestos expanded similarly, with Henry Ward Johns's pioneering the use of asbestos in numerous applications.
 

Documenting the Hazards of Asbestos

Despite its widespread use, the dangerous health effects of asbestos were recognised as early as 1897. An Austrian doctor attributed his patient's pulmonary troubles to the inhalation of asbestos dust. An 1898 British report highlighted the "widespread damage and injury of the lungs" due to asbestos exposure in mills. The first documented death of an asbestos worker from pulmonary failure occurred in 1906.
  
Despite these warnings, the asbestos industry continued to grow. By 1910, world production exceeded 109,000 metric tons, over three times the total in 1900. In the United States, the demand for cost-effective, mass-produced construction materials led to a surge in asbestos consumption.
 

Asbestos in Common Products

Asbestos found its way into several common products used in construction and automobiles. The boom in the domestic construction industry led to an increase in demand for asbestos-based products.
 
As cars became a routine aspect of the American landscape, roads built using asbestos-laced asphalt became common. Other products that used asbestos included thermal insulation for homes and offices, automotive and aeroplane clutches, asbestos millboard and paper for electrical panels, heat and acid-resistant gaskets and packing materials, and more.
 

Modern Demand for Asbestos

The demand for asbestos amplified in the post-war years, with economies and countries struggling to rebuild. Despite the known health risks, many emerging economies embraced the use of asbestos. However, by the late 1970s, a significant decline began in the use of asbestos as the public began to understand the link between asbestos exposure and debilitating lung diseases.
Asbestos, a group of naturally occurring fibrous minerals, was once lauded for its versatility, heat resistance, and insulating properties. This material, however, is invisibly threatening, with its minuscule fibres capable of causing severe health issues when inhaled. Therefore, the role of masks and respirators in offering protection against asbestos exposure is paramount. This article will delve into the nature of asbestos, its associated health risks, and the essential role of masks and respirators in mitigating these risks. 

Understanding Asbestos

Asbestos is not a gas but a dust composed of extremely thin and volatile fibres, 400 to 500 times thinner than hair. It can be found in various household and industrial products, including cement sheeting, drains and pipes, roofing materials, brakes, clutches, gaskets, and insulators. While many of today's products are asbestos-free, older products may still contain this hazardous material.
 

The Health Hazards Posed by Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos fibres, when inhaled, settle down in the lungs, specifically the pulmonary alveoli. Studies by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have established a causal link between asbestos exposure and the risk of larynx and lung cancer.
 
The symptoms of asbestos-related illnesses may not appear until 20 to 30 years after exposure. These diseases include asbestosis, a chronic lung condition; lung cancer; and mesothelioma, a specific form of cancer associated with asbestos.

 

The Prevalence of Asbestos in Workplaces

Asbestos exposure is a significant concern in many workplaces, especially in industries like construction, manufacturing, and shipbuilding. Even today, there tends to be trace amounts of asbestos in the air in many homes and workplaces, which can pose a risk to health if the exposure levels exceed the Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL).
 

The Importance of Protective Measures

Given the dangers of asbestos exposure, it's vital to take necessary precautions, especially if you are at risk of encountering these substances. One such measure is the use of masks and respirators designed to filter out asbestos fibres from the air.
 

The Role of Masks and Respirators 

Masks and respirators protect the wearer from inhaling harmful substances, including asbestos fibres. These tools cover the wearer's nose and mouth or the entire face, preventing harmful particles from entering the respiratory system.
 

Selecting the Appropriate Mask or Respirator

The effectiveness of a mask or respirator largely depends on the filter or cartridge used. The particles/dust from asbestos is effectively filtered out by a 'P100' rated filter, an industry term for a HEPA-rated filter.
 
In the case of actively growing mould (which often coexists with asbestos), it may be advisable to use a mask or respirator that also offers organic vapour protection.
 

Ensuring the Correct Fit

An essential aspect of wearing a mask or respirator is ensuring a good fit. A mask that does not fit properly may allow harmful particles to slip through, rendering the protection ineffective. 'Face fit testing' is a practice that ensures the mask creates an adequate seal against the wearer's face.
 

Types of Masks and Respirators

There are various types of masks and respirators available, suitable for different exposure levels and work durations. Disposable respirators, half-mask respirators, full-face mask respirators, powered air-purifying respirators, and supplied air respirators are some options available.
 

The Legal Framework Surrounding Asbestos Exposure

The dangers of asbestos have led to stringent regulations worldwide. The European Union, for example, has issued several directives regulating the risks related to asbestos exposure at work. Today, the use, marketing, and distribution of products containing asbestos are prohibited in the EU.
 
Asbestos, despite being an invisible threat, is a significant health hazard that demands attention and precaution. The use of appropriate masks and respirators plays a crucial role in mitigating the risks associated with asbestos exposure. It's not only a matter of adhering to regulations but also a fundamental aspect of ensuring occupational safety and health.
 
Remember, protection is always better than cure. Equip yourself and your team with the right protective gear and knowledge to ensure a safer working environment.

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