The History of Asbestos in the Construction Industry.
The use of Asbestos actually dates back thousands of years. Fibres were used in textiles and pottery in Ancient Egypt, Persia and Rome but it was only with the Industrial Revolution that its use really began to develop and to such an extent that it was eventually used in almost every aspect of construction. It was used in asphalt and vinyl floor tiles; acoustic plaster; sound insulation such as ceiling tiles; electrical insulation and partitions; lift parts; fire blankets, curtains and doors; roofing felt and shingles (in America from as early as 1858); textured paints and coatings; and many other products.
Of course, it is particularly well known as an additive to cement being used in cement pipes, siding and wallboards. In 1899, a German company started producing asbestos cement sheets and Austrian industrialist Ludwig Hatschek created the perfect asbestos and cement mixture. His product was called Eternit, and it was so popular that ‘eternit’ is often used as a generic name for fibre cement products.
After WW2 a new type of sprayable asbestos coating was created, a fundamental step towards the construction of high rise buildings, as the coating insured that structural steel beams would not bend in a fire. The Chase Manhattan Bank, built in New York in 1958, was one of the first skyscrapers to use asbestos insulation. Famously this technique was also used in the World Trade Centre and it is estimated that when the twin towers collapsed in September 2001 an estimated 400 tons were released into the New York atmosphere.
In the 1950s and 1960s, vinyl-asbestos became one of the most common products for tiling because they were durable, inexpensive and easy to install. Their popularity continued until the 1980s, when they were phased out due to health concerns.
Asbestos use was not confined to construction. Its fire-resistant properties made it particularly useful in engineering (for instance in lining steam engines) and in researching this article we even discovered that at one point, in the early 1950s, it was used in by Kent, an American tobacco company, as a component for their cigarette filters! (A double whammy!)
Read more about Asbestos containing materials
Read our Asbestos case studies