By Hemali Chudasama, Collections Management (Hazards) Trainee
Asbestos was one of the first hazards I came across in the collection which was during my time volunteering at the Science Museum. As a volunteer I was only allowed to handle low risk asbestos objects. and I have to say It was one of the best introductions to asbestos I have it was a great starting point for me when I started my project here at NMS. So far, I am finishing off a management plan and risk assessment for asbestos in collections and looking forward to getting on site and seeing what objects we have that contain asbestos!
What’s asbestos I hear you say? Well I guess it’s time for a mini history less with Hemali!
Hazardous History 101
- Actinolite (Serpentine asbestos mineral)
- Amosite (Serpentine asbestos mineral) (Brown)
- Anthophyllite (Serpentine asbestos mineral)
- Chrysolite (Amphibole asbestos mineral) (White)
- Crocidolite (Serpentine asbestos mineral) (Blue)
- Tremolite (Serpentine asbestos mineral)
Welcome to history 101 with Hemali, today’s lesson we are going over the history of asbestos. Asbestos is a term that refers to six naturally occurs silicate minerals:
All types of asbestos are fibrous which is one of the main constitutes to why it is hazardous to health, but more on that later. The different between serpentine and amphibole asbestos is the appearance of the fibre. Serpentine are long, curly and flexible whether as amphibole fibres are stiff, straight and short.
The word asbestos comes from the ancient Greek and mean “unquenchable” or “inextinguishable”
So, when was it first used?
Asbestos was first thought to appear in Sweden, Greece and Cyprus in asbestos mine around 5000 BC. In 4000 BC, asbestos was used as wicks for lamps and around 2000 – 3000 BC asbestos cloth was used to wrap embalmed bodies of Egyptian Pharaohs to protect their body from deterioration.
- In the UK it was widely used from the 18th century.
- It was extensively manufactured from the 19th century onward
- Leo Bakelite invented Bakelite in 1909
- Asbestos peak usage was around 1950s-70s
- 1985 Crocidolite ban (blue asbestos) and complete ban in 1999 (all forms)
Example objects containing asbestos: Paint, Hairdryers, toasters, Ovens and oven gloves and housing insulation and in Atrex ceilings.
Why was it so popular?
Thinking of the properties of asbestos, it really is a wonder material as well as a really cheap and widely available material. Asbestos was used as electrical, acoustic and heat insulation as well as incorporated with other products such as resins (e.g. Bakelite), cement and vinyls. It is also very resistant to friction (great for brake pedals) and corrosive chemicals. All sounds great, right? Wrong.
So, what’s the problem?
Asbestos is highly dangerous due to its fibrous and friable nature. If asbestos is disturbed it can become airborne and inhaled which can cause many asbestos related diseases such as cancer. The issue with becoming exposed to asbestos fibres is that health issues can develop decades later as it damages the human body cells over time.
Examples in the collection
Okay, so what do we have in the collection? From completing desk based survey I have a list of objects reading to check when I get on site, but I’ve chosen two interesting objects from the list to show you today.
First up we have this children’s Mickey Mouse Gas mask. Like all the other gas masks from WWI and WWII, the filters within the mask contain asbestos (Crocidolite, blue asbestos). You should also be aware of residual chemicals on the masks from the war period. If you have a gas mask from that period of time, please don’t put it over your face unless you know it did not contain an asbestos filter.
Next, we have an electric hairdryer by Morphy Richards from the 1950. Hairdryers were lined with asbestos insulation around the internal heating area. The fibres would then be released through the dryer as the fibres would release once the dryer was turned on. This hairdryer actually contains asbestos as it is made out of Bakelite.
Stay tuned till next time where we look at another hazard!
PSA – Please don’t scrub your Artex ‘popcorn’ celling (pre 1999) without the appropriate PPE. Its all fun and games until you realise there’s asbestos in there. I may or may not have seen many videos of this on Instagram.