Recently, new controversy surfaced concerning a disputed HSE survey into the safe management of asbestos material still found within the fabric of some fourteen thousand schools, which were built or refurbished between 1945 and 1975 using large quantities of chrysotile (white), amosite (brown) and crocidolite (blue) asbestos. It should be said that the hazards now posed come almost exclusively from chrysotile (white) asbestos.

Deliberate disregard and downplaying of asbestos awareness contributed to the fatal consequences of daily exposure and led to many thousands of workers and their families across the UK falling victim to asbestos-related diseases, asbestosis and mesothelioma, throughout most of the 20th century.

Despite only chrysotile (white), crocidolite (blue), amosite (brown) and anthophyllite being used in industrial workplaces and their individual colours easily identified when freshly mined, ageing and heat turns all asbestos a similar colour and can only be identified and classified by type when laboratory tested. The danger occurs if fibres are released from ageing asbestos materials, or when the material is damaged, especially during routine maintenance activities such as drilling or sanding, which releases dangerous concentrations of asbestos dust.

Towards the latter end of the 1970s, around 95 per cent of all asbestos mined was chrysotile (white) and it was only this type that continued to be exploited for construction material.

Although the asbestos industry constantly referred to the fire proofing or enhanced safety properties of the mineral and indeed, the 1970 Fire Precautions Act encouraged heavy use of asbestos insulation board, clearly the main use had nothing to do at all with fire protection. Nearly three quarters of asbestos in Western Europe was used for simply reinforcing asbestos cement in construction building in concentrations of about 10 per cent or more.

When cement was mixed with about 15% asbestos fibre, a rigid sheet less than five millimetres thick was produced. Rigid cement pipes could be produced at a thickness of only one centimetre when mixed with asbestos rather than the three centimetres thick it would have required to avoid breaking. Asbestos slates, tiles and linings behind fires were of similar composition.

Light and easy to handle, construction companies used asbestos to simply save on both the quantity of cement used and transport costs. All health and safety implications were simply ignored and the terrible legacy, as a result of the 30 – 50 year delay before asbestosis symptoms first appear in victims, is seen in the continuing number of mesothelioma compensation cases, still being brought to court and forecast not to peak until 2050 at the earliest.