Occupational exposure to asbestos was a potential health risk throughout many British industries or employment sectors during its heyday as a common, inexpensive source of insulation and fireproofing. The fatal dangers of working with the fatal fibres in shipbuilding, manufacturing, boiler maintenance or vehicle assembly are today well known. The situation for many thousands of British workers throughout much of the twentieth century was very different.

One recent case of occupational exposure, once again, highlights the widespread use of asbestos in almost every type of workplace. The unfortunate victim’s wife has been left with the desperate task of calling upon her deceased husband’s former co-workers to come forward with any information on how and where the exposures may have occurred at the time.

Innocently exposed to asbestos

The widespread lack of asbestos awareness to either the presence of the insulation or the long term dangers of asbestosis diseases meant countless numbers of men were often innocently exposed to asbestos at their ordinary place of work. A confirmed diagnosis of the incurable mesothelioma cancer, often 30 or 40 years later, is almost always a complete shock as many simply cannot understand where the source of the exposure took place.

In the current case, the victim was just 18 years of age when starting work as a laboratory technician in 1965 where he was employed until 1970. Invariably, doctors only diagnosed mesothelioma decades later. In this instance, forty five years had elapsed since the unexplained exposure and the first appearance of asbestosis symptoms.

Used in thousands of industrial, commercial and manufacturing products

At the start of the 1950s, more than 123,000 tons of the blue, brown and white mineral was being imported every year. A decade later this figure had risen to nearly 170,000 tons, topping 183,000 tons by the early 1970s.

The fibres were preformed or mixed with plaster to be used in thousands of industrial, commercial and manufacturing products from boiler and pipework linings, vehicle brake pads and gaskets or woven together to make every day household items, such as oven gloves or ironing board covers.

One of the most common products was asbestos rope, which was used as a gasket wherever high temperature machinery, equipment or instruments required to be jointed or sealed, such as boilers and flues, pipe flanges or between two pieces of sheeting.

Mineral is still being used today… in rope insulation

The wife of the former laboratory worker says she recalls her late husband speaking about using asbestos rope when conducting experiments at the testing facility. In addition, the building’s pipework system was lagged with asbestos, which often needed replacing. The maintenance work would cause the release of fibre dust into the surrounding air, and the likelihood of the tiny particles being inhaled by all those working nearby.

At no stage, says the deceased victim’s wife, was her husband or his colleagues ever issued with protective equipment or warned about the health dangers of handling asbestos rope.

While the use of asbestos as insulation and fire proofing in items, such as asbestos rope, declined around the time of the first UK ban in the mid 1980s, incredibly, the mineral is still being used today in both dust containing and dust free rope insulation. A key manufacturer of asbestos rope is China, one of several countries who continue to resist all attempts by the international community to halt the practice.

While Russia is now the world’s biggest asbestos producer, with around one million metric tonnes mined each year, China is the second largest producer with around 90 per cent of asbestos imported by Asian countries.

Even a “pure asbestos” rope is available

China continues to advertise the use of the rope made of braided asbestos fibre. Incredibly, a roll of twisted asbestos rope is stated as being manufactured by “two or more strands of long asbestos (chrysotile)”, which is claimed to be widely used as caulking, sealing and heat insulation on thermal installations and heat conduction systems. The rope is highlighted as having good thermal conductivity, acid and alkali resistance, capable of being moulded into any shape and operating well at extreme temperatures.

Asbestos lagging rope is advertised as possessing two layers, the outside of which is braided with “dusted asbestos” and promoted as being “ideal for heating pipelines” where there is constant vibration. Even a “pure asbestos” rope is available, which is designed for static sealing, high pressure and temperature working environments.

To date, 55 countries around the world have banned the use of asbestos fibres as an insulating material but still two million tonnes of the deadly mineral are mined and exported annually to developing industrial economies. By 2013 global asbestos production had passed 2,019,000 tonnes.