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Past Uses Of Asbestos

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral found in rocks and soil. It has proved helpful throughout history for its heat, electricity, and corrosion-resistant properties. It has been used for generations as fire protection and incorporated into building work worldwide. However, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that the dangers of asbestos were brought to light. The use of asbestos has since been in rapid decline, with the UK government prioritising the removal of the substance from building structures. 

Discovering Asbestos

The use of asbestos asbestos-building-material-past-usesdates back to Ancient Greece, approximately 4500 years ago. Originally named ‘amiantus’, which translates to ‘resistance to fire’, the substance was popular and predominantly used in textiles. Fire-resistant clothing, handkerchiefs, and curtains were among some of the most common uses for the fibres. Mention of the mineral even appears in writing from Marco Polo, indicating its prominence in everyday life. The Ancient Egyptians were also a fan of the material, using it in their mummification process to help preserve corpses. 

Despite its popularity, its severe health impacts were always present. Wearing the material meant the fibres were constantly disturbed, leading to inhalation. We now know that asbestos is highly harmful to respiratory health. Still, ancient civilisations were also aware of the dangers of the mineral. The Greek geographer Strabo reported a ‘sickness of the lungs’ within enslaved people exposed to the material as they wove it into various fabrics. 

Past Uses

Asbestos has been used throughout history for its fire-retardant benefits. We no longer use the substance today, but there are some commercially known uses for asbestos that we can look back on to improve your asbestos awareness.


Asbestos was often used in certain tiles and tile adhesives. The asbestos fibres were bonded with materials such as vinyl. These tiles were used until the 1980s for walls, ceilings and flooring. Due to their health risks, they were primarily removed from households.


Asbestos paper was primarily used to insulate and protect electrical equipment from moisture. Certain paper products contained between 70% to 100% asbestos fibres. This led many asbestos paper manufacturers to become extremely unwell as they were forced to work around such a high level of dangerous fibres. 


Providing strength and durability, white asbestos was a popular cement component in industrial settings and farmyard buildings. The asbestos proved helpful in creating a stronger, fire-resistant cement despite its health risks.


Asbestos has been a valuable material in cars for many years. It was used as an essential component of automobile clutches and brakes. The increased friction in these areas means they build up a lot of heat, so a non-flammable material needs to be used to prevent fire.

Heat-Resistant Fabrics

We’ve already discussed how ancient civilisations used asbestos in their clothing and curtains. Still, asbestos fibres have been woven into many fabrics throughout history. In 1986, it was estimated that the asbestos fibres found in clothes was between 70% to 80%.


Asbestos coatings can often be found on the underside of roofs and the sides of buildings. These coatings were applied in a spray, dispersing the fibres into the air, making them highly likely to be inhaled. Spray coatings contain up to 85% asbestos that can be easily broken down. It is one of the most dangerous uses for asbestos.


An asbestos-reinforced resin was a popular material used to produce toilet cisterns. This doesn’t typically occur in modern toilets. Still, it could be lurking if you come across older plumbing. 


This has been a widespread use for asbestos since the late 1800s. Due to its flame-resistant properties, asbestos was always a popular building insulator. I became the most significant source of asbestos exposure for workers in the 20th century contributing to a whole host of health issues and even deaths.

Walls, Ceilings & Flooring

In older properties, asbestos can lurk in all sorts of places simply because the risks weren’t considered until the 1980. Artexing, a fashionable home feature often used to coat ceilings, used asbestos as a primary ingredient. It is ironic how commonly asbestos was used to ensure safety and prevent fire when it had such dire health consequences. If undisturbed, though, many of these home features are not harmful. 

Hot Water Pipes

The early 20th century saw asbestos used for domestic and commercial piping and pipe insulation. Brown asbestos has a very high heat resistance which makes it a useful material to use as an insulator. 

Safe Asbestos Alternatives

Now that the dangers of asbestos fibres have been uncovered, safer materials must be found as a replacement. There were many benefits to asbestos in construction; despite its health implications, it was a beneficial substance, which you can learn more about in your asbestos awareness course. Luckily, there are several alternatives can be used instead of asbestos and don’t pose a risk to respiratory health. 

Cellulose Fibres

Typically found in plant cell walls, cellulose is a naturally safer natural alternative to asbestos. It can also be treated with chemicals to make it fire-resistant.

Polyurethane Foam

This type of spray foam provides roofing insulation without distributing dangerous fibres.

Flour Filler

This material is useful for filling cracks and is used as a natural insulator.

Amorphous Silica

This material can insulate hot and cold temperatures and will not burn when exposed to excessive heat. It does contain fibreglass, so it is not safe to be used in the home, but it can be used in commercial settings.

Thermoset Plastic Flour

This material is suitable for insulating against cold, heat and sound. It is a strong and durable substance.

Removing Asbestos Safely

It is essential that if you have asbestos in your home or building, you get it assessed by a professional such as a qualified asbestos surveyor. It may not require removal, but it is crucial to know whether or not it is a high risk and whether it is likely to be disturbed. Providing people with the right training to handle and remove asbestos is the key to minimising the risk associated with the material. Our online Asbestos Awareness Course is the ideal place to start your training.

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