While asbestos dates back to prehistoric times it did not become hugely popular until the Industrial Revolution. Archaeologists have dated fibres found in debris back to the Stone Age, some 750,000 years ago. Reports of the use of asbestos date back to around 4000BC when it was used as candle wicks. In Ancient Egypt, embalmed Pharos were wrapped in asbestos cloth to prevent their bodies from deteriorating. Clay pots in Finland that date back to 2500BC have been found to contain asbestos fibres.
The Greeks and Romans had asbestos napkins and tablecloths that, after a meal, would be thrown into the fire to be cleaned and would come out as white and clean as if they had never been used. As far back as Roman times the health effects of asbestos exposure have been documented. The ‘disease of slaves’ caused respiratory illnesses in the slaves who wove the
asbestos fibres into cloth. The slaves were known to wear makeshift respirators, made from a thin membrane in the bladder of a goat or sheep, to protect themselves from illness.
In the late 1800s, when the Industrial Revolution began, asbestos mining steadily became more popular. The first asbestos mines were opened and men took on the hard job of chipping away rock to extract the asbestos fibres. Women and children were put to the task of preparing and spinning the fibres so that they could be used in household and building materials.
The incredible durability of asbestos made it an essential in the automotive and constructions industries and was widely used by the military. To this day, no material as useful or durable has been found or created. Asbestos related diseases were overlooked for centuries, if not millennia but the health effects have been formally documented since the 1890s. The ‘first’ asbestos related death was reported in London in 1906 but despite consistent health warnings the mining and manufacturing of asbestos steadily grew until the 1970s.
The use of asbestos in industrialized nations began its decline in the late 1970s when the public began to see the relationship between asbestos and respiratory problems. Over the years many bans have been put in place, starting with bans on importation of asbestos and culminating in many countries banning its use. The majority of mines, throughout the world, have been closed and mining banned but some emerging economies still mine and use asbestos.
Unlike many industrialised western nations, New Zealand does not currently have a proper ban in place to prohibit the importation and/or use of asbestos. In 1984 the importation of raw amosite and crocidolite was prohibited, a ban on the importation of raw chrysotile followed in 1999 though neither bans were effectively regulated. These bans were put in place by Customs Import Prohibition Orders which expired in 2008 and were replaced by the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996. Under this Act, all forms of asbestos are considered unapproved hazardous substances but are not strictly prohibited or effectively regulated. Although uncommon, asbestos is still being imported to and used in New Zealand. Whether it being a newly imported material or an older one that is finally being used or reused you cannot be 100% sure that a material that may contain asbestos is not actually a material that does contain asbestos.