Asbestos can turn up in the most unlikely of places. It was recently reported that piano tuners can find asbestos in various parts of a piano, especially those instruments that are up to 50 to 60 years old or more. Every time there is a report of an unexpected asbestos exposure, it’s a reminder of just how widespread the use of the potentially deadly insulation was during most of the twentieth century. Around 5,000 people are expected to still be victims of asbestos exposure each year up until the middle of the 21st century, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

From the 1950s and throughout the 1960s, 70s and into the 80s, around 170,000 tons of asbestos was annually imported into the UK – double the amount recorded in the 1940s. Until the final import ban on white asbestos in 1999, more than five million tons had been used in British industry as a key insulation and fireproofing product, and could be found almost anywhere in a typical UK domestic household.

Asbestos fibres used for making items found in almost every aspect of British life

Asbestos awareness for many ordinary people today may often appear to be no more than the occasional report of specks of dull grey dust discovered at a public building, such as a school or council property. Many people also know that most historical, occupational exposures to asbestos containing materials (ACMs) occurred as a result of working in heavy engineering, shipbuilding, railway/vehicle assembly and building/construction.

It can be sometimes forgotten that asbestos fibres were used as a material strengthener and insulation for over 3,000 products. By the 1960s, more than 100 companies were using asbestos fibres for making items found in almost every aspect of British life, which could be found in a variety of typical domestic household items. Most types of heating appliances contained asbestos insulation, such as ovens, dishwashers, toasters, clothes dryers and electric blankets. But asbestos could also be used in products, such as PVC, nylon and corrugated paper, oven mats and gloves, ironing board covers, curtains, wallpaper, potting mixtures and even popcorn.

In recent years warnings have been issued over the asbestos linings found in World War Two gas helmets, cigarette filters and talcum baby powder. Now a further and unexpected example of the fibre’s far-reaching legacy are the reports of asbestos being discovered in the moving parts of a piano, including the key hammer felts, damper felts and chasers.

Dust residue can be found throughout the piano

Piano tuners say that key hammer and damper felts in older pianos could have been made with asbestos, which appears in a register of applications from 1959. Fibre dust residue can be found throughout the piano caused by the asbestos felt hammers wearing down or being eaten by carpet beetles or other invisible house mites.

The inside of the piano was protected from moisture damage by the use of a damp chaser system, which was known to have contained white chrysotile asbestos as an absorbent in the dehumidifier unit used up until the 1970s. The wiring to the damp chaser system could also have been insulated with asbestos, which protected the piano from generating heat. Some damp chasers were also insulated with vermiculite, a natural, soft silica mineral, known to sometimes be contaminated with tremolite, a form of asbestos found in types of rock.

Regular and frequent occupational contact with asbestos materials

The mounting evidence of the link between asbestos exposure and the development of mesothelioma and asbestosis disease eventually led to more stringent legislation and the subsequent decline of asbestos use from the late 1970s and 80s. A total ban on all asbestos use in the UK was only introduced in 1999. Today, modern pianos use damper felts made from at least 70 per cent wool and no asbestos, whatsoever.

The dangers of hidden asbestos should not to be underestimated. HSE have estimated that more than 1.8 million people still come into regular and frequent occupational contact with asbestos materials. While the significant majority are those employed in the building industry and related skill trades, such as plumbers, joiners and electricians, the risk for anyone living in properties built or renovated up until 2000 has been repeatedly flagged up by industry professionals.

The likelihood of asbestos hidden in a traditional and treasured family heirloom, such as a piano cannot be overlooked, either.