Today marks the 95th anniversary of the first recorded death in the UK attributed to occupational asbestos exposure.

It’s a common misconception that asbestos is a man-made material, manufactured for developers for its properties which are ideal for insulating homes. However, asbestos has been used for thousands of years for its flexibility, durability and fire-resistant properties. Asbestos is actually the term used for a set of six naturally-occurring silicate minerals, all formed of thin fibrous crystals (“asbestiform”) and found in specific rock types. 

One of the earliest known uses for asbestos was in the strengthening of earthenware pottery by the communities of the Lake Juojärvi region in East Finland, who exploited the local asbestos mineral anthophyllite around 4,000 years ago. 

In classical Greece, a historical record from Theophrastus describes the use of asbestos in a wick for a golden lamp for the goddess Athene, which continued to burn long after the oil had been used up. Herodotus also refers to the use of asbestos minerals in shrouds used to wrap the dead before they were burned on the funeral pyre, as a way of ensuring that their ashes were kept separate from that of the pyre itself. 

Later records continue with a theme of purification by fire; perhaps the most famous anecdote – which has been attributed to the use of asbestos material – is of the Emperor Charlemagne, who was said to have had a tablecloth with which he entertained guests at the end of a feast by throwing it onto the fire, where it came out clean and untouched by the flames. 

In c. AD 1250, Marco Polo also gives an account of a garment with similar properties but with a more fantastical origin, reportedly made of salamander skin. The salamander has been portrayed as possessing this mythical ‘fire-proof’ quality for centuries; Marco Polo countered that:

“For the real truth is that the Salamander is no beast, as they allege in our part of the world, but is a substance found in the earth; and I will tell you about it. 

Everybody must be aware that it can be no animal's nature to live in fire, seeing that every animal is composed of all the four elements. Now I, Marco Polo, had a Turkish acquaintance of the name of Zurficar, and he was a very clever fellow. And this Turk related to Messer Marco Polo how he had lived three years in that region on behalf of the Great Kaan, in order to procure those Salamanders for him. He said that the way they got them was by digging in that mountain till they found a certain vein. The substance of this vein was then taken and crushed, and when so treated it divides as it were into fibres of wool, which they set forth to dry. When dry, these fibres were pounded in a great copper mortar, and then washed, so as to remove all the earth and to leave only the fibres like fibres of wool. These were then spun, and made into napkins. When first made these napkins are not very white, but by putting them into the fire for a while they come out as white as snow. And so again whenever they become dirty they are bleached by being put in the fire.” 

(Polo, Marco, The Travels of Marco Polo; translated by Henry Yule, 1920)

This connection between fire-proof salamanders and asbestos minerals persisted into the Middle Ages, with naturalists including Conrad Gesner depicting the salamander as having fur or wool in his Historiae Animalium encyclopedia; although Sir Thomas Browne in his 1642 publication Pseudodoxia Epidemica discusses the claims of ‘salamander wool’ and concludes: “Nor is this Salamanders wooll desumed from any Animal, but a Mineral substance”.

(Browne, Thomas, 1646; Pseudodoxia Epidemica)

Large-scale mining began during the 19th century, when manufacturers and builders began using asbestos for its affordability, strength, sound absorption and resistance to fire, heat, and electricity. As with previous use, it was generally mixed with other materials, like cement or cloth, to achieve the desired properties. It was widely used in housing until the late 20th century, when asbestos-related deaths reached their peak and increased research demonstrated the harmful effects of the fibres.

Asbestos fibres contain microscopic fibrils, which are detached and become airborne through any sort of abrasion on the fibre. They can remain airborne for several hours and repeated inhalation or ingestion of these particles causes serious illnesses which can be fatal, including lung cancer, laryngeal cancer, ovarian cancer, asbestosis, clubbed fingers and mesothelioma. 

Nellie_Kershaw first death by lung disease: the history of asbestos

The first recorded death due to exposure to asbestos was Nellie Kershaw in Manchester in 1924, who died of pulmonary asbestosis, a condition caused by repeated scarring of the lungs by fibrils. Nellie had been an employee at the Turner Brothers Asbestos factory for seven years, spinning asbestos into yarn. Dr William Edmund Cooke testified at the inquest that “mineral particles in the lungs originated from asbestos and were, beyond reasonable doubt, the primary cause of the fibrosis of the lungs and therefore of death”. 

(Bartrip, Peter, 1998; Too little, too late? The home office and the asbestos industry regulations, 1931)

Asbestos is currently estimated to cause 255,000 deaths per year worldwide.  Use of the material was only fully banned in the UK in 1999, and awareness has grown within the industry around the identification and safe removal when undertaking development work. At Wessex Archaeology we give annual United Kingdom Asbestos Training Authority (UKATA) Asbestos Awareness Training to our staff that may come in to contact with asbestos through their work activities.  We also give further training to our managers on how to manage communication with our clients and their responsibilities as the duty holder.

Key facts:

  • Figures released by the Health & Safety Executive on 31st October 2018 reveal asbestos related deaths continue to rise in the UK.
  • The earlier data on Mesothelioma mortality released in July 2018 showed an increase in the number of deaths for 2016, rising from 2,542 (in 2015) to 2,595 (in 2016) with a similar number of lung cancer deaths.
  • These latest figures also show an increased number of Asbestosis deaths, rising from 467 (in 2015) to 500 (in 2016) due to past exposures to asbestos.
  • These figures combined represents over 5,000 asbestos related deaths per year, highlighting the importance of information, instruction and training.

(UKATA UK Asbestos Training Association

 Hero image: Chrysotile asbestos and a salamander unharmed in the fire, copyright Koninklijke Bibliotheek and Eurico Zimbres