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8 Unusual Places You Might Find Asbestos

09-11-2017

Photo shows an ironing board - some old boards may contain asbestos, covers were also lined with asbestosAs a naturally occurring material, the history of asbestos in tools and products stretches back thousands of years. Its seemingly miraculous properties of fire resistance and tensile strength led to its use in all kinds of products, with a particular boom in the early 20th century.

While many of these extraordinary uses have been consigned to history, asbestos remains an active issue. The amount that was mined and used in over a hundred years of industrialisation means asbestos is still all around us, from insulation to brownfield sites. Knowing some of its stranger uses - and its ubiquity - could help you identify these risks and act accordingly.

Toilet seats

One unusual item on the odd asbestos register is the humble toilet seat. Early plastic composite seats made from the material known as Bakelite would sometimes contain asbestos. This was used in small quantities to strengthen the somewhat brittle material.

Although its heat-resistant properties might have made it the enemy of bums everywhere, the asbestos in these seats is generally safe and stable. Asbestos was also used in Bakelite toilet cisterns, and even sound insulation in some instances, to dampen the noise of flushing.

Off-road biking

Be it through exposure or as a result of the Instagram age, extreme sports are becoming more and more popular. For people in the UK, motocross and quad biking are two of the most accessible and most popular. Kicking up a bit of dirt as you tear across fields, farmlands and specially turfed-up tracks is a thrill unlike most others.

What many people don’t realise is that the swirling dust clouds these sports produce can be extremely hazardous. As well as the usual microbial dangers associated with dirt, such as anthrax spores, the particulates in this dust can be a mix of farmland and industrial by-products, including asbestos and respirable crystalline silica (RCS). A lungful of these could cause significant long-term damage.

Crayons

Most items containing asbestos were made in the 19th and 20th centuries, when people didn’t know any better. But a few of you might remember this brief scandal from 2015, where Disney and Nickelodeon-branded kids’ crayons were found to contain traces of asbestos.

It’s not known if asbestos was deliberately added to the crayons, which were manufactured in China. Australian safety officials declared that the crayons were not an immediate danger, as the asbestos fibres were safely embedded inside the wax. Nevertheless, the presence of any asbestos meant they had to be recalled, and disposed of at special facilities.

Artex ceilings

Remember Artex? These distinctive ceiling swirls, spikes and patterns were all the rage in the 1970s. They swiftly fell out of fashion, and Artex ceased to be made with asbestos sometime in the 1980s. But stock of the old Artex remained, and so builds as late as the 1990s still used this dangerous substance.

The risks of Artex are more pronounced than most, both due to its ubiquity and lack of popularity. Many people are tempted to sand it off, or take other DIY approaches to removing the ugly textures. Whatever you do, don’t do this: you can remove it safely via steaming, but it’s best to have a qualified assessor check your Artex, and remove it themselves if necessary.

Ironing boards

One of the most famous properties of asbestos is that it is fire resistant. As a result, it’s been used through history in any number of items that come in contact with fire or heat. Until the early to mid 80s this included the ‘head’ of ironing boards, on which you would place the iron.

Although inert, these pads could chip and break through heavy use. Even the later use of fireproof vermiculite carries a risk, as the world’s largest source of vermiculite (mined in Libby, Montana) was infamously contaminated with deadly asbestos. Ironing board covers were also occasionally lined with asbestos, which would fray and release the fibres more easily.

Cigarette filters

When you know that the one thing you absolutely shouldn’t do with asbestos is breathing it in, adding it to a product that you expressly breath in is probably unwise. So it proved with asbestos cigarette filters, used in market-leading Kent cigarettes in the 1950s.

As articles promoted the risk of cancer associated with cigarettes, consumers rushed to buy ‘filtered’ varieties, believing they would reduce the risk. We now know that the effect of filters is minimal, only filtering out a small amount of the harmful smoke and particles.

It worked for the Kent brand, however, which introduced blue asbestos to its patented ‘Micronite’ filters as a marketing ploy, riding on the substance’s popular appeal. This lasted for around four years, and the company behind Kents has been paying out lawsuits ever since.

Christmas decorations

Once upon a time - largely before electric Christmas lights - candles were a common fixture on and around Christmas trees. As a result, the fluffy appearance of white asbestos (combined with it being fireproof) saw it being manufactured as a fake snow substitute.

This extremely deadly product wasn’t just a passing fad for consumers. Movies with bright, hot stage lights also used the asbestos flakes to imitate snow in Christmas themed movies. It features prominently in The Wizard of Oz, as well as the Bing Crosby vehicle Holiday Inn, in which people clamber in piles of asbestos. Suffice it to say, this was not a good idea.

Toothpaste

Yes, really. This wasn’t the first time a deadly additive was touted as a panacea, with radium being sold as a health drink in the past. Asbestos similarly found its way into some medical and hygiene products with spurious benefits, including a period where the fibres were used as a surgical thread.

The use of asbestos in toothpaste was hardly widespread, but it did form a component of the Ipana brand, which was extremely popular following WW2. The asbestos fibres were intended as an abrasive, helping to clean teeth more effectively. If they did improve cleaning, ingesting asbestos fibres probably wasn’t worth it.

 

Author bio:

This post was contributed by SAMS Ltd, a health and safety consultancy & training company based in Ramsgate, Kent. SAMS offers a variety of health and safety courses online, as well as classroom courses, business advisory services and event management solutions.

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