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Asbestos: History, Uses and Harmful Effects Essay

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Updated: Apr 26th, 2022


Asbestos refers to a set of “six naturally occurring silicate minerals exploited commercially for their desirable physical properties” (Hamer & Dodson, 2011). The various types of asbestos normally exist as crystal fibers which are often long and thin in size. There are two categories of asbestos namely the serpentine and the amphibole asbestos (Hamer & Dodson, 2011). The serpentine asbestos is usually white in color and is found in almost every part of the world. Chrysotile is the most common example of serpentine asbestos and it is mainly used to manufacture corrugated roofing sheets. The amphibole asbestos can be either brown or blue in color. The brown type which is popularly known as amosite is associated with the cummingtonite-grunerite solid series and is mainly found in Africa (Hamer & Dodson, 2011). The blue type, crocidolite, is mainly found South Africa.

History of Asbestos

The origin of asbestos can be traced to Lake Juojarvi region, where its usage began 4500 years ago (Hamer & Dodson, 2011). It was used to make pots and lamp wicks. The first attempt to describe asbestos was made in 300 BC by Theophrastus. His description of asbestos is found in the text titled ‘on stones’ (Hamer & Dodson, 2011). In the United States the use of asbestos began in 1858. However, commercial mining started in 1874 in Quebec’s Appalachian foothills (Hamer & Dodson, 2011). The use of asbestos in manufacturing and construction sectors of most countries became popular towards the end of the nineteen century.

Uses of Asbestos

In the manufacturing industry, asbestos are used to make the wiring systems of electronic ovens and hot plates (McCulloch, 2008). Its use in the manufacture of electronic ovens is based on the fact that it can resist heat even at very high temperatures. Asbestos is also used in the construction industry to manufacture roofing sheets and pipes (McCulloch, 2008). The characteristics that make it suitable for manufacturing the mentioned building materials include flexibility and high tensile strength (Hamer & Dodson, 2011). Asbestos is also resistant to many chemicals and this makes it suitable for manufacturing building materials. In the US, it has been used to build ships. In the past, “asbestos was used in the automobile industry to manufacture brake pads as well as clutch discs” (Hamer & Dodson, 2011).

Harmful Effects

Exposure to asbestos especially in its raw form is associated with severe health consequences. If inhaled, the fibers of asbestos can lead to serious diseases (Dewees & Daniels, 2007). The most harmful types of asbestos are amosite and crocidolite. This is because their fibers stay in the lungs for a very long time if inhaled by a person exposed to them. The major diseases caused by asbestos include “mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer, asthma and tumors in animals” (Dewees & Daniels, 2007). The chances of getting ill as a result of being exposed to asbestos’ fibers increase if the exposure time is prolonged. Thus those who are exposed to it on a daily basis are more likely to suffer from asbestos-related illnesses. This is supported by the fact that about 70% to 80% of asbestos-related illness are reported by people who work in manufacturing plants that use asbestos (Dewees & Daniels, 2007).

The Ban of Asbestos

The use of asbestos has been banned in most developed countries especially in Europe. Owing to the large number of deaths associated with the use of asbestos, most governments have banned its use in order to ensure public safety. Thus the main reason for banning the use of asbestos is the severe health consequences associated with it (McCulloch, 2008). In New Zealand, the use of asbestos was partially banned in 1981 with a full ban being implemented in 2002 (McCulloch, 2008). Australia banned its use by 1991, while in Japan the full ban was implemented in 2004. In the US, the use of asbestos was banned in 1989. However, that decision was changed by a court ruling in 1991 (McCulloch, 2008).

Countries still using Asbestos

Asbestos is still used in the US especially in the construction sector to manufacture pipes. However, its use is highly regulated in order to ensure the safety of those exposed to it (McCulloch, 2008). There are minimum safety standards that have been set by the government and must be observed to avoid health risks. The use of asbestos is still common in China and Russia (McCulloch, 2008). In these countries, asbestos is mainly used to manufacture corrugated roofing material.

Other Current uses of Asbestos

Even though asbestos is still being used in some countries, its use as a raw material has greatly declined since the 1990s (McCulloch, 2008). The decline is attributed to both the health hazards associated with it and the high regulation associated with its use. Currently, it is used to manufacture building materials for out-door structures such as garages and warehouses.


The above discussion indicates that asbestos is a mineral whose physical characteristics include high resistance to heat, high tensile strength and flexibility (Hamer & Dodson, 2011). These qualities make it a suitable raw material in the manufacturing and construction industry. It has been used to manufacture corrugated roofing materials, pipes and electric ovens. Despite having desirable qualities, the use asbestos is associated with severe diseases such as lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma (Dewees & Daniels, 2007). Consequently, its use in many countries has been banned.


Dewees, D., & Daniels, R. (2007). The cost of protecting occupational helath: the asbestos case. Journal of Human Resources, 21(3) , 381-396.

Hamer, S., & Dodson, R. (2011). Asbestos: risks assesments, epidemology and health effects. London: Taylor and Francis.

McCulloch, J. (2008). Defending the indefendable: the global asbestos industry and its fight to survive. Economic Review, 20(1) , 311-350.

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