Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral which has been mined for generations. It consists of strong fibres with great durability, fire resistance and insulating properties. Asbestos fibres are 50 to 200 times thinner than a human hair and can float in the air like fine dust, invisible to the naked eye, being breathed into the lungs.
Evidence that fibrotic lung disease caused by exposure to asbestos fibres was first noted in the 19th century and became more widely recognised within the first 30 years of the 20th century.
Asbestos was called the "magic mineral" because its unique chemical composition coupled with its physical properties made it so versatile. It was suitable for use in thousands of products ranging from floor tiles to fireproof doors, from pipe insulation to brake and clutch linings. Asbestos fibres can withstand fierce heat but are so soft and flexible that they can be spun and woven as easily as cotton. The term asbestos is derived from a Greek word meaning "inextinguishable, unquenchable or inconsumable".
Major industrial use of asbestos goes way back to the 19th century. Its versatility combined with its cheapness and readily available stocks led to several thousand uses within industries.
Widespread asbestos use was prevalent until the early 1990s.
In 2003, Australia banned the use of asbestos for domestic or commercial construction. Many other countries around the world have also banned its production and use.