Asbestos mining existed more than 4,000 years ago, but large-scale mining began at the end of the 19th century, when manufacturers and builders began using asbestos for its desirable physical properties, such as sound absorption, tensile strength, affordability, and resistance to fire, heat, and electricity. It was used in such applications as electrical insulation for hotplate wiring and in building insulation. When asbestos is used for its resistance to fire or heat, the fibres are often mixed with cement or woven into fabric or mats. These desirable properties made asbestos very widely used. Asbestos use continued to grow through most of the 20th century until public knowledge (acting through courts and legislatures) of the health hazards of asbestos dust outlawed asbestos in mainstream construction and fireproofing in most countries.
The incredible durability of asbestos made it 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.
Prolonged inhalation of asbestos fibres can cause serious and fatal illnesses including lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis (a type of pneumoconiosis). Concern of asbestos-related illness in modern times began with the 20th century and escalated during the 1920s and 1930s. By the 1980s and 1990s, asbestos trade and use were heavily restricted, phased out, or banned outright in an increasing number of countries.
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.
Despite the severity of asbestos-related diseases, the material has widespread use in many areas. Continuing long-term use of asbestos even after harmful health effects were known or suspected, and the slow emergence of symptoms decades after exposure ceased, has made asbestos litigation expensive in most countries involved. Asbestos-related liability also remains an ongoing concern for many manufacturers, insurers and reinsurers.
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.
In 1984, New Zealand prohibited the importation of raw amosite and crocidolite and a ban on the importation of raw chrysotile followed in 1999 though neither bans were effectively regulated.