Discovery of toxicity of Asbestos

- Jun 15, 2018-

For additional chronological citations, see List of asbestos disease medical articles.

In 1899, Montague Murray noted the negative health effects of asbestos. The first documented death related to asbestos was in 1906.

In the early 1900s researchers began to notice a large number of early deaths and lung problems in asbestos-mining towns. The first such study was conducted by H. Montague Murray at the Charing Cross Hospital, London, in 1900, in which a postmortem investigation of a young man who had died from pulmonary fibrosis after having worked for 14 years in an asbestos textile factory, discovered asbestos traces in the victim's lungs. Adelaide Anderson, the Inspector of Factories in Britain, included asbestos in a list of harmful industrial substances in 1902. Similar investigations were conducted in France and Italy, in 1906 and 1908, respectively.


Asbestos fabric

The first diagnosis of asbestosis was made in the UK in 1924. Nellie Kershaw was employed at Turner Brothers Asbestos in Manchester, England from 1917, spinning raw asbestos fibre into yarn. Her death in 1924 led to a formal inquest. Pathologist William Edmund Cooke testified that his examination of the lungs indicated old scarring indicative of a previous, healed, tuberculosis infection, and extensive fibrosis, in which were visible "particles of mineral matter ... of various shapes, but the large majority have sharp angles." Having compared these particles with samples of asbestos dust provided by S. A. Henry, His Majesty's Medical Inspector of Factories, Cooke concluded that they "originated from asbestos and were, beyond a reasonable doubt, the primary cause of the fibrosis of the lungs and therefore of death".

As a result of Cooke's paper, parliament commissioned an inquiry into the effects of asbestos dust by E. R. A. Merewether, Medical Inspector of Factories, and C. W. Price, a factory inspector and pioneer of dust monitoring and control. Their subsequent report, Occurrence of Pulmonary Fibrosis & Other Pulmonary Affections in Asbestos Workers, was presented to parliament on 24 March 1930. It concluded that the development of asbestosis was irrefutably linked to the prolonged inhalation of asbestos dust, and included the first health study of asbestos workers, which found that 66% of those employed for 20 years or more suffered from asbestosis.The report led to the publication of the first Asbestos Industry Regulations in 1931, which came into effect on 1 March 1932.These regulated ventilation and made asbestosis an excusable work-related disease. The term mesothelioma was first used in medical literature in 1931; its association with asbestos was first noted sometime in the 1940s. Similar legislation followed in the U.S. about ten years later.

Approximately 100,000 people in the United States have died, or are terminally ill, from asbestos exposure related to ship building. In the Hampton Roads area, a shipbuilding center, mesothelioma occurrence is seven times the national rate. Thousands of tons of asbestos were used in World War II ships to insulate piping, boilers, steam engines, and steam turbines. There were approximately 4.3 million shipyard workers in the United States during WWII; for every 1,000 workers about 14 died of mesothelioma and an unknown number died from asbestosis.

The United States government and asbestos industry have been criticized for not acting quickly enough to inform the public of dangers, and to reduce public exposure. In the late 1970s, court documents proved that asbestos industry officials knew of asbestos dangers since the 1930s and had concealed them from the public.

In Australia, asbestos was widely used in construction and other industries between 1946 and 1980. From the 1970s there was increasing concern about the dangers of asbestos, and its use was phased out. Mining ceased in 1983. The use of asbestos was phased out in 1989 and banned entirely in December 2003. The dangers of asbestos are now well known in Australia and there is help and support for sufferers from asbestosis or mesothelioma.