Touted as a miracle substance for hundreds – maybe thousands – of years, your grandparents’ generation would probably have laughed at the thought that people would ever want asbestos removed from their homes. After all, it has everything you’d want to incorporate in your new home – fire resistance, great strength, sound absorbency and the ability to handle electrical and chemical damage with no impact on the surface.

These days though, we know better, and anyone living or working in a building constructed or refurbished before the year 2000, when tight regulations come into force, is at risk of having asbestos nearby. A 2011 survey revealed that 50% of the UK’s buildings had some sort of asbestos involved in their construction. The British public have wised up, and know that asbestos must be removed. It’s a good idea to know your enemy though, so here’s a detailed background of the substance.

Believe it or not, asbestos is a common name for six naturally occurring substances. They are found underground, and have to be mined, much like coal. The first recorded incidence of asbestos mining was about 4,000 years ago. If you look at asbestos under a microscope, you’ll see something which looks a bit like an octopus, except the legs are long, sharp, and pointed. When broken down into dust, particles of asbestos can be breathed in. It’s these pointed legs which embed themselves in your lungs and cause the damage.

Historically, you’ll find lots of stories about how asbestos was used. It’s likely that the ancient Egyptians were using it in bandages to wrap up mummies. Tales from Ancient Persia tell of showmen dipping tea towels into a mysterious substance which then allowed all the dirt on them to be burned off, leaving the cloth as good as new.

The Canadians brought it to modern attention in 1850, weaving it into yarn and paper, and extolling its fire resistance. Clothing and paper which couldn’t be damaged by fire amazed the nation. With that, people started to wonder if these fire resistant qualities wouldn’t make it a good material to use in building, giving an entirely fire-resistant house.

It didn’t take long though before doctors and scientists started to notice a connection between people who worked around asbestos and the sudden increase in people suffering from terminal lung disease. In 1900, an autopsy was carried out on an asbestos miner, and the doctor noticed that the long tentacles of asbestos fibres were embedded in his lungs. After more research, the government added asbestos to a list of harmful materials.

With its reputation now in question, research into what was once the saviour of building continued, until scientists were conclusively able to state that asbestos was responsible for the deaths of workers involved with its mining and construction. In 1931, the first regulations for asbestos workers were introduced, and the public saw the warning flag which was being raised.

Although it’s true that asbestos is safe if intact, it doesn’t take much to release those asbestos particles and allow them into the air. If there’s any doubt in your mind at all about your building, the only way to be sure is to have a licensed asbestos expert check your walls, floors and ceilings thoroughly. They’ll be able to advise you on the best way to deal with any asbestos contamination.