Asbestos is an old material, first used by humans in the Neolithic age as a temper for ceramics. Prehistoric shards and ware containing asbestos have been found in Finland, central Russia, Norway and Sweden. First recorded uses of asbestos date back as early as 2500 B.C. It has been known since ancient times in both the western world and Asia as a natural wonder and a source of fibre for very expensive, and therefore rare, textile objects such as shrouds, napkins, tablecloths, and special purpose clothing.
In the west it is first mentioned in Greek sources-thus its name ‘Asbestos’, meaning “inextinguishable” and was first written about around 300 B.C. The Greeks and Romans not only noted that asbestos had low thermal conductivity, was resistant to fire and acids but also noted that asbestos had harmful biological effects.
In addition to western sources, Chinese, Sinhalese and Indian sources attest to the use of asbestos in antiquity. The first definite identification of asbestos fabric in Asian sources occurs in a writing dated towards the end of the fifth century B.C. about a fire proof cloth that was cleaned by exposure to fire.
Even though the Greek geographer Strabo and the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder both observed the “sickness of the lungs” in the slaves that wove asbestos into cloth, they were in such awe of asbestos’ seemingly magical properties that they ignored the symptoms.
The Greeks used asbestos for the wicks of the eternal flames of the vestal virgins, as the funeral dress for the cremation of kings, and as napkins.
It is rumoured that Romans would clean asbestos napkins by throwing them in the fire. The asbestos cloth would come out of the fire whiter than it went in, so the Romans named asbestos “amiantus”, meaning “unpolluted”.
For hundreds of years experiments on asbestos were carried out and records of findings recorded. Asbestos was woven into cloth linings for suits of armour, asbestos paper was used for writings and textiles were used by the wealthy.
Use of asbestos declined during the Middle Ages, however some say that Charlemagne had asbestos tablecloths. Marco Polo was also shown textile items made from asbestos cloth on his travels. He also observed asbestos mining and weaving of asbestos cloth in Asia.
Asbestos use in England was brought back in the 1700s, but did not become popular until the Industrial Revolution during the late 1800s.
The Industrial Revolution represented a huge boom for the asbestos industry. Factories were opening everywhere and new uses for the miracle mineral were being devised on a regular basis. Commercial asbestos mines sprung up in the late 1800s and entrepreneurs recognised that asbestos could perhaps make them rich.
The railroad industry was among the first to make extensive use of asbestos and asbestos-containing products, and because the railroad industry was growing in leaps and bounds, the need for more asbestos grew.
Railroad engineers began to use asbestos materials to line refrigeration units, boxcars, and cabooses and the material was found to be especially useful as insulation for pipes, boilers, and fireboxes in that era’s steam locomotives.
The shipyard industry wasn’t far behind. Shipbuilders made extensive use of asbestos material as well, not unlike the railroad. Some typical uses included insulation for steam pipes, boilers, hot water pipes, and incinerators.
In fact, asbestos was so widely used aboard ships that those who worked in the industry are among the most affected by asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma and asbestosis. Shipbuilding became especially dangerous during war time, when the industry was at its peak and literally millions worked building and repairing ships.
Ancient observations of the health risks of asbestos were either forgotten or ignored.
At the turn of the twentieth century, researchers began to notice a large number of deaths and lung problems in asbestos mining towns. In 1917 and 1918, it was observed by several studies in that asbestos workers were dying unnaturally young.
The first diagnosis of asbestosis was made in 1924. A woman had been working with asbestos since she was thirteen. She died when she was thirty-three years old, and an English doctor determined that the cause of death was what he called “asbestosis”. Because of this, a study was done on asbestos workers in England. Twenty five percent of them showed evidence of asbestos-related lung disease.
Laws were passed in 1931 (these were the first asbestos related laws – ‘The Asbestos Industry Regulations 1931′) to increase ventilation and to make asbestosis an inexcusable work-related disease. In the 1930s major medical journals began to publish articles that linked asbestos to cancer.
The re-discovery of asbestos-related diseases were put on the back burner for several years due to the emergence of silicosis (a lung disease caused by silica dust inhalation). The affected workers brought £300 million in lawsuits against their employers. This served as a warning to the asbestos companies, and afterwards they tried to cover up the health effects of asbestos.
Asbestos companies continued to use asbestos in manufacturing and construction. Despite that many materials, such as fibreglass insulation, were created to replace asbestos, companies that used asbestos ignored the safer alternatives. They ignored the danger for the sake of profits, much like the tobacco industry.
The conduct of the asbestos companies is especially egregious, however, because the victims were largely exploited workers who were unaware of the serious health risks they were exposed to on a daily basis.
As automobiles became popular in the early years of the 20th century, that industry also latched on to asbestos. In cars, the magical mineral was used in brake pads and shoes, and in clutch plates, all classified as “friction” products.
Asbestos was also used for the brakes in the new-fangled elevators that graced America’s growing crop of skyscrapers.
By far, however, it was the building industry that gave asbestos its largest boost. Everyone, of course, wanted their homes and offices to be safe and warm, so fire-resistant asbestos seemed like the perfect product for those purposes. Asbestos was soon to be found everywhere in homes and commercial buildings. It was used as wall insulation, for floor and ceiling tiles, in exterior siding, and in roofing tar and shingles.
Asbestos could also be found in stucco, drywall tape, gaskets, cement pipes, rain gutters, plaster, putty, caulk, and a host of other building products. Schools and theatres even boasted asbestos curtains, considered to be safer than other standard fabrics because of its strength and heat resistance.
When the use of asbestos was at its highest – probably in the 1940s to 1970s – an estimated 3,000 products made use of its unique properties.
You could find asbestos in hair dryers, irons and ironing board covers, toasters, coffee pots, and electric blankets. Because asbestos is also found in vermiculite or talc, trace amounts could also be detected in cosmetics and powders as well as fertilizer and potting soils.
The warnings and regulations of the 1970s and beyond put an end to much of the industry, but countries remain where chrysotile asbestos is still mined and exported.
Though there’s relatively little chance of experiencing the degree of exposure that many suffered in the 20th century, the risk is still there; in older buildings, imported auto products, and in places where natural deposits of the mineral are commonplace.