The Strangest Ways Asbestos Has Been Used

Most people who have heard of asbestos know that it was commonly used in building materials that were then used to build homes all over Australia.

Given the durability and strength of asbestos, this use made a lot of sense.

However, many people will not know that the use of asbestos was far more widespread than building materials. Asbestos has been used all over the world for many different weird and unusual ways, and today, we’re going to tell you about some of the strangest ones we know of!

But, before we get into the unusual asbestos uses, let’s talk a little bit about what asbestos actually is and why it’s now banned in Australia.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally produced substance that is found in rock formations all over the world. It’s a silicate mineral made up of very, very small, microscopic fibres that are resistant to heat and water, extremely lightweight and highly flexible.

These qualities made asbestos very versatile and saw it being used to produce lots of different products and materials, especially in the building and construction industry.

Asbestos could be used on its own or mixed with other materials, like adhesives, and then used for a variety of purposes and applications. Some of the most common building materials made using asbestos were cement sheeting, insulation, and cement moulded products.

Australia was a prolific user of asbestos, with it being commonly used to build homes and buildings all over Australia predominantly between the 1950s and the late 1980s. The versatility of asbestos and the extensive number of materials it was used to create means that when a home contains asbestos, it could be in every room of the home. Though, it is commonly found in areas like kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry.

The use of asbestos started to slow in the late 1980s, though it wasn’t until 2003 that the use of asbestos was banned.

Why was it banned?

Asbestos was banned from use in Australia, in any form, on December 31st in 2003.

The use of asbestos was banned as inhaling asbestos fibres is known to cause a number of very serious health conditions and complications – some of which are life-threatening and incurable.

Asbestos is usually classified as being friable or non-friable. Friable asbestos means that when the asbestos fibres are dry, they can be easily crumbled or pulverised to a powder, even by hand. Non-friable asbestos means that when it is dry it cannot be crumbled or pulverised to powder by hand. It’s usually mixed with other strong materials, like adhesives, and is also often known as bonded asbestos.

Homes and buildings in Australia might have both kinds of asbestos present in them, and while non-friable asbestos, when it’s in a good condition, poses less of a risk to your health, it’s a good idea to have an understanding as to whether any asbestos is present in your home – particularly if you have plans to renovate it.

You can find out if your home has asbestos through an asbestos inspection and testing service – like ours – learn more here.

So, now that you know a little more about asbestos and why it was banned in Australia, let’s talk about some of the strangest ways it has been used!

13 of the weirdest ways asbestos has been used around the world

While construction materials are one of the most well-known ways that asbestos was used, it was actually used in more than 3000 products.

Here are some of the strangest ways!

1.      Toothpaste

Given what we know now about the dangers of asbestos, the idea of it being in something that we put in our mouths is genuinely shocking.

However, in North America, following the second world war, one of the new forms of toothpaste included the new abrasive ingredient – asbestos.

It was believed to be able to remove stains from your teeth due to its abrasiveness.

2.      Cigarette Filters

As if smoking isn’t already dangerous enough, add some asbestos to your filter and you might just have found the deadliest combination.

One of the biggest brands that used asbestos in their cigarettes was Kent, which was an American cigarette brand. Their asbestos containing cigarettes were manufactured between 1952 and 1956.

The reason asbestos was used in cigarettes was because it had natural filter like qualities, being dense enough to stop particles and has from seeping through.

While asbestos cigarettes obviously posed significant issues for the people smoking the cigarettes, the instances of asbestos exposure also affected people who were near those smoking these cigarettes, as well as the workers who had to make the cigarettes, and their families.

3.      Shoes

Asbestos was seen as an attractive material to be used in the manufacturing of a particular type of shoe, the moulder shoe, which was marketed as being a fireproof shoe option.

In addition to the original moulder’s asbestos shoe, there were also insoles made using asbestos that were marketed with the claim that they would “make your feet feel happy”. The were touted as antiseptic insoles that prevented various conditions, made callouses peel off, bunions reduce, and inflammation will be drawn right out. In addition to these claims, they were also marketed as being able to stop your feet from perspiring, thereby preventing bad smelling feet.

4.      Dish Clothes and Towels

The use of asbestos dates back centuries, even to Ancient Greece, where they would spin asbestos fibres into cloth and textiles.

The asbestos fabric was used in a variety of ways including for dish cloths, towels and even clothing.

The fire-resistant properties of asbestos meant that clean-up was easy, the dirty cloth could simply be thrown in the fire to be cleaned.

The fire and heat resistant properties also meant that asbestos fabric clothing was commonly worn by firefighters, welders, and industrial workers for extra protection.

5.      A Magic Tablecloth

Quite possibly one of the most interesting stories about asbestos use is another form of asbestos fabric.

The story goes that Charlemagne, the Emperor of the Romans, had an asbestos fabric tablecloth, which was said to be a magical tablecloth.

Supposedly a party trick of his was to remove his asbestos tablecloth at the end of a feast and throw it into the fire. His guests would be shocked when the stains and crumbs from the meal would burn away but the tablecloth would be just like new!

Many people believed that Charlemagne had magical powers!

6.      Hair Dryers

The heat and fire-resistant properties of asbestos made it an attractive material for hair dryers in the 1950s.

Hair dryers can get quite hot inside them and be somewhat of a fire hazard. Asbestos materials were often used to create an insulation inside the hairdryer to stop fires and overheating.

The hairdryers with the large hoods that people would sit under were the kind to contain this asbestos heat-proof layer most commonly, so while vintage is cool, if you see one of these hairdryers in your travels, steer clear!

7.      Books

You probably think that reading is about as far away from asbestos as you can possibly get, and in most cases it is.

Yet, in the middle of the twentieth century, there were instances of asbestos being used to bind books.

One of the most famous books that had asbestos binding was the dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. The story of Fahrenheit 451 revolves around an oppressive government and how they sought to eliminate anything that complicated life or made its citizens think, which included books. The books were burned by firemen.

The touch of asbestos binding of the first editions of Fahrenheit 451 meant that these books couldn’t be burned. While the marketing ploy of this certainly drew attention, it also endangered readers of the book!

8.      Bowling Balls

Reducing costs and increasing strength – that’s why asbestos was used as one of the materials to make bowling balls in the 1960s and 1970s.

It was largely used a filler materials, and given its natural abundance and durability, it meant the ball itself would last longer, and be even cheaper to make.

The people who are actually made the bowling balls or were involved in the manufacturing process were at risk of asbestos exposure, as were the people who actually sold the bowling balls, as they would have to drill the right size holes into them for customers.

The risk also extended to the people using the balls, especially if the balls weren’t cleaned properly after the hole drilling process.

9.      Ironing Boards

The fire and heat resistant properties of asbestos gave it another use for a simple household product – the ironing board.

Asbestos fibres were commonly used to make ironing boards, not usually the whole board, rather the bit at the top of the board where you rest the iron.

In addition to the ironing board itself being made with asbestos materials, some ironing board covers were also lined with asbestos materials too.

10.  Medical thread

Now that we’re up to number 10, you might be surprised to actually still be surprised by an entry on this list – but this one was definitely shocking for us.

Asbestos fibres were woven into thread that was used as surgical thread to stitch wounds and incisions after the second world war.

It’s superior strength and amazing flexibility made it an attractive option for this purpose, however, given what we know now, this use is pretty shocking.

11.  Gas masks

From the mid-1930s up until the 1960s, gas masks manufactured in Britain had a high chance of containing a type of asbestos.

Ironically, gas masks were made to purify the air and reduce the chances of breathing in chemical gases, however, a few million of these actually contained crocidolite (a type of asbestos), which as you’re likely aware by now, is not good news.

As many of these gas masks were made in response of World War II, they were often on display or used in schools to learn about this important time in history. However, there have since been warning from asbestos committees in the UK to remove these as they could be dangerous!

12.  Crayons

Though the use of asbestos has been banned for some time in Australia, there are still countries who actively mine it and use it to manufacture products.

As recent as 2015, Disney and Nickelodeon branded crayons that had been manufactured in China were found to contain traces of asbestos; and in 2018 Playskool crayons were found to contain a toxic level of asbestos as well.

These findings were huge news as it meant children were at risk of being exposed to this harmful substance.  

13.  Christmas Decorations and Fake Snow

In a time before electric or battery powered Christmas tree lights, candles were a common decoration either on or around the Christmas tree and home.

To mitigate the risk of fire, decorative snow made from asbestos was a common site as it was seen as fireproof. The loose nature of the fake asbestos snow meant that it could become easily airborne and put people in danger.

The decorative capabilities of asbestos didn’t stop at the Christmas tree though. Many movies made in the late 1930s and early 1940s use the asbestos snow as it wouldn’t melt or be in danger of catching on fire under the hot set lights. One of the most famous movies asbestos snow was used in was The Wizard of Oz!

What if you think your home has asbestos?

As you can see, asbestos knows no bounds. It’s uses were many and varied and while we’re lucky its usage has been banned for a fair while now in Australia, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t present.

While not all asbestos will pose an immediate risk to your health, it’s still better to know what you’re dealing with.

If you think your home or property may contain asbestos, you can always book in an asbestos inspection with us here at Greenlight. We offer asbestos inspections, testing, monitoring and management services. We can help you stay safe!

Call us today on 03 9048 4411.

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