The uses of asbestos

Asbestos has many uses due to its inherent properties. A strong, durable and flexible material, asbestos acts as an insulator because it does not conduct heat; moreover, it is relatively chemically inert, or unreactive. Due to these properties, asbestos has high commercial value.

In ancient times, asbestos was a novelty. Charlemagne had a tablecloth, seemingly made of asbestos, with which he would entertain dinner guests. He ‘cleaned’ the table cloth by throwing it into the fireplace, where it would be retrieved unscathed. Asbestos’ fine fibrous crystals were used as decoration or adornment in homes and even jewelry. Ancient Egyptians, Persians, Romans and Greeks would use asbestos as a funeral shroud to protect the bodies of their dead.

The rise of industrialization resulted in asbestos becoming more and more common. With the emergence of new technologies, like the steam engine, there was an increased demand for the manufacture of thermal insulation. Asbestos use peaked in the 1950s, at which point it could be found in about 3 000 products.

The health effects of asbestos have been known for over a century, but the versatility and profitability of the product meant those concerns were largely ignored for many years. As its health consequences became more noticeable, asbestos use waned and there was a concerted effort to ban the substance. Today, asbestos is still used in the developing world and, embarrassingly, in a few developed countries like the United States. Vast amounts of it remain in buildings and car parts in all countries in which it has been commonly used, even in countries where it has been banned, including Canada.

Where asbestos has been used:

  • Insulation around windows, gaskets, furnaces, pipes, etc. – Asbestos fibres act as insulation to heat, electricity, and even sound. For this reason, asbestos is used to insulate homes and industrial products like furnaces and engines. It is used as a sealant around gaskets and windows in buildings and homes. Asbestos was also used in military applications: many veterans were exposed and have developed asbestos-related diseases as a result.
  • Building products like tiles, cement, etc. – The durability of asbestos means that it has frequently been used in many building products such as ceiling and floor tiles, fireproof drywall, house siding, and cement products.
  • Fire resistant products like drywall, fabrics, etc. – Asbestos was used in fire blankets and outfits for firefighters to protect them from heat and flame. Its use in housing materials was seen as a way to ‘fireproof’ private homes and public buildings like schools, municipal buildings, and hospitals. Asbestos was even marketed as a ‘miracle mineral’ that would save lives because of its inflammability.
  • Vehicle brakes, transmissions, and clutches – Asbestos is also used in car manufacturing to make products like vehicle brakes, transmissions, and clutches last longer.

Where you can find asbestos in your home

Any home made before 2000 should be checked for asbestos by a qualified professional before renovation occurs. Disturbing asbestos without taking necessary precautions can have dangerous health consequences.

A cross-section schematic of a typical two-storey house, labelled with all of the parts of the house that are likely to contain asbestos (particularly if the house was built before 1990).
Potential sources of asbestos in the home (WorkSafeBC)

For more information on the health risks of asbestos and risks for exposure to asbestos, see Health risks of asbestos at Health Canada.