My husband is a builder and every time we hear anything on television about asbestos and people who are suffering from cancer thanks to working with it, my heart does a little spin. His father was also a carpenter, and his father before him.
Although my husband has only been in the industry for some 20 years, he still comes into contact with asbestos which has now become known as a dangerous mineral. That’s because it has actually been around for a whole lot longer than it has been banned. In fact, people first began mining for asbestos some 4,000 years ago and can actually be traced back around 500 years further – although back then it was used for making cooking utensils stronger!
It wasn’t until the late 1800s that mining became more prominent as builders discovered how effective it was to use for walls and roofs of houses. It has great sound proofing qualities, is fire resistant (particularly when mixed with cement or fabric) and it’s cheap so it was often used for electrical or building insulation.
It was in 1899 that the negative health effects were finally recognised.
What harm can it do?
Breathing in the fibers of asbestos can actually be extremely detrimental to health, causing serious and even fatal illness. This has been recorded over time to include things like lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis which is a type of pheumoconiosis.
The early 1900s actually saw an increase of deaths in towns where the mines were located, and the first official death related to asbestos poisoning was recorded in 1906. You’d think that would have been enough to put up the warning flags, but it didn’t stop people using it.
In the 1920s and 1930s that people really started to notice the link between these illnesses and asbestos. The first recorded death in the UK was a woman who worked at a factory – when she died they found a large number of particles of asbestos in her lungs. Throughout the second World War, it was used for insulating the piping, boilers and engines of ships. More than 1.5% of those people working in the shipyards died from health problems directly associated with asbestos, though this was hidden from the public at the time.
Dangers vs awareness
But although the awareness of the dangers were more prominent, houses were still built using the substance for decades afterwards! I guess the affordability seemed to outweigh the health risks. It’s in the roof, gutters, flooring, carpet underlays, carports, fences and much more – even in the formwork for concrete. Obviously there were so many uses for it, which is why it was so popular, but it is unfortunate that people are still paying the consequences.
Homes around the world were built using asbestos. This seems crazy considering the world was already aware of the health implications it could cause.
It wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that the use of asbestos in building was phased out and finally it became banned in a number of countries, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still around. Any time a builder is working on a property that is older than 20 years; they risk working with asbestos.
Even today, in the US alone, research has found that exposure to asbestos kills around 12,000 to 15,000 people every year.
Today, legally, they should be wearing protective gear when in the vicinity of this dangerous substance, but there are many builders – or project managers – who simply don’t see the point. By doing this, they are putting their own lives and the lives of their families, or anyone else on the job site, at risk!
The effects aren’t immediate
The thing is, asbestos poisoning and the illnesses related to it don’t show immediate side effects, and people like my husband’s father (or even my husband himself) are still at risk 20-30-40 years after being in contact with it.
My husband still goes to building jobs now where he’s required to knock walls down, that are filled with asbestos. And it’s not uncommon for him to arrive at a job like this and protective clothing hasn’t been provided. At times like this, he walks out – not willing to risk his health (or that of me or our children if he brings the fibers home on his clothes). But many builders stay.
If you’re sitting there thinking to yourself “well I don’t have to worry about asbestos” – think again. The house you are living in, if it’s older than 10-20 years, probably has asbestos in it. But you’d never know it unless you built it yourself, you have it written on your property description, or if the roof or walls collapse or get a hole in them and need replacing (by which time it’s probably too late to stop any exposure to it).
Unfortunately there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it if it is inside your house – unless you want to pay someone to do a refurbishment, but it is pretty important that you are aware of the dangers.
Stay tuned for our next blog on the symptoms and treatment of exposure.