Many common domestic and industrial products, which were manufactured up until the Control of Asbestos Regulations banned the use of the most toxic brown and blue asbestos types in the mid 1980s, would almost invariably contain asbestos fibres.
A well known use for asbestos fibres was in the production of plastics and asbestos-reinforced plastics, which began in 1907, when the first plastic invention, Bakelite, appeared. Widely used in the automotive and electrical industries, the almost indestructible durability of Bakelite was matched by its ability to withstand heat, fire and electrical current.
Plastics manufacture used asbestos fibres by the standard practice of adding a filler agent, such as fibreglass, cellulose and carbon, to provide strength, stiffness, chemical resistance, thermal stability and safety.
The widespread use of asbestos as an inexpensive insulator and flame retardant material also meant that factory workers possessed little or no asbestos awareness of the deadly health risks of working directly with the material and company employers failed to provide sufficient safety information or protective clothing / equipment.
Workers who were most at risk from likely contact with asbestos-reinforced plastics would include those involved in the manufacturing process and who worked with plastic moulding compounds, compression moulding or injection moulding and the delivery drivers who transported the powdered plastic compound.
Many who came into direct contact with asbestos would breathe in the airborne asbestos fibres everyday, which remained permanently attached to the lining of the lungs. A typical gestation period of up to 50 years would elapse before the first asbestosis symptoms or signs of the incurable mesothelioma cancer finally emerge.
Until the first asbestos ban and up until the late1980s, loose asbestos fibres added during the manufacturing process accounted for nearly 3 per cent of all reinforcement materials and it was estimated as much as 17 per cent asbestos would be still found in plastic materials, including PVC vinyl asbestos tiles, nylon, polypropylene and polyesters.
Asbestos was also commonly used in asbestos-reinforced plastics such as cladding panels, electrical panels and partitions, switching panels, terminal boards and blocks as well as vinyl used in floor tiles, sheet flooring, wallpaper and plastic casings for switches and controllers.
At least 2,000 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed every year according to a recent HSE estimate and it is expected that 5,000 people will die from asbestos exposure each year by 2015.