Asbestos seems to appear in the most unlikely of places, due to it being such a widely used, versatile and useful product (if the negative health effects of exposure are ignored!).
Most people would never imagine that asbestos was/is used in alcohol production. While its use has phased out in the Western world, countries where asbestos is not banned are still using it during the filtration process.
Asbestos in beer
Beer has been around for thousands of years, with the first documented recipe being recorded during the Prehistoric Egyptian era, roughly 6,000-7,000 years ago.
Even though it’s existence has been a long one, it wasn’t until the 19th century that filtration was added to the process. Paper leaves were the first filters used, which were then replaced with pulp-cakes, which the beer making industry used for decades after.
Pulp-cakes were created from cotton and asbestos fibres. They were popular for production because they were able to be reused 4-5 times, and showed effectiveness at removing microorganisms. However, what they were also good at was releasing asbestos fibres into the surrounding air, and the beer it was filtering.
Pulp-cakes were phased out in Western countries as asbestos awareness grew, and were replaced with non-asbestos alternatives made from perlite and diatomite. The United States used asbestos-filled pulp-cakes up until the 1980s.
Asbestos in wine
Similar to beer production, it’s thought that wine was first produced 7,000-8,000 years ago, but in Iran and Georgia. The predominate wine production locations in Western Europe were all established during the Roman empire.
To create the best quality wine, it ideally needs to be filtered to extract unwanted particles, therefore asbestos filters were widely favoured until the 1970s.
During the typical four month filtering process, cellar workers would usually perform two filtration cycles. This involved opening raw asbestos bags, and scattering them onto the surface of the wine. Empty bags would usually be left on the floor for the remainder of the day, which would increase the risk of exposure even more. Respiratory equipment was not worn during this process.
Check what you’re drinking
Due to the internet and how easy it is to import exotic drinks, there’s almost no end to the variety that are available to consumers around the globe.
While certain imports may seem appealing, it’s important to be aware of potential asbestos contamination from countries that asbestos is still legal, as it is likely that their filters will still be comprised of asbestos.
Obviously sampling local drinks when visiting a foreign country is part of the fun, but it may not be worth the risk if asbestos is not banned in the country.