Viewed as a miracle mineral for its natural ability to withstand heat, fire, and manipulation, asbestos was once a valued material. This mineral was first mined by the ancient Greeks, though today we continue to call the material by a derivative of its Roman name, which means “inextinguishable” or “unquenchable.” However, asbestos today is known more for its hazardous nature and its menacing reputation for causing mesothelioma and other lethal diseases.
Early Uses of Asbestos
Over the centuries, asbestos has been used in building construction, clothing and even to wrap the deceased. The earliest known use of this material was as a strengthening component of earthenware pots and utensils for inhabitants of Scandinavia 4,500 years ago. It is also believed that deceased royalty were wrapped in asbestos shrouds and burned on funeral pyres. Since their clothing remained intact, the ashes of the body could be easily collected.
Tablecloths and garments made of asbestos could be cleaned by tossing them into a fire, as witnessed in China by 13th century Italian explorer Marco Polo and visitors to wealthy Persian homes. For all of the miraculous properties that asbestos has previously displayed, early Romans noticed that those who mined for and worked with it became sick and died premature deaths. Among the earliest documented proof of individuals experiencing symptoms of lung problems as a result of handling asbestos can be found in the manuscript of a Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder.
Use of Asbestos in Modern Times
Despite past knowledge of the dangers of asbestos use, the material’s popularity rebounded around the turn of the century. When the Industrial Revolution began, the uses for asbestos became even more widespread as mass manufacturing began. The role of the mineral continued to expand as it was being incorporated into materials for ships, refineries and for insulation in the boiler rooms of steam engine trains. Again, the health problems with asbestos did not cease. Thousands of workers, from ship yards to construction sites, were unknowingly exposed, often paying the heavy price with their lives.
Continued Use in the 20th Century
The mineral’s heavy demand maintained its popularity throughout the 20th Century, with regular use peaking between World War II and the 1960s. In fact, the 1939 World’s Fair included a tribute to the material from the company Johns-Manville. This homage to the mineral’s service included a giant statue known as “Asbestos Man,” which ushered visitors to the company’s pavilion into a complete explanation of the benefits of this material. The popularity of asbestos continued for the next 25 years, as it could be found everywhere: in homes, factories, schools, and office buildings. Asbestos was being manufactured in shingles, cement, glue, tile, drywall, plaster, and in car parts. Some cigarettes even had asbestos filters on them.
It was long suspected that asbestos was making people sick, though these early reports remained mainly anecdotal and did not show any definitive link between asbestos exposure and the development of disease. However, beginning in the early 1900s, doctors started documenting patients with lung problems who worked around asbestos. Autopsies confirmed what many already knew: asbestos was the cause behind the chronic bronchitis and pulmonary fibrosis problems being witnessed. Eventually, lung problems associated with asbestos exposure would become known as asbestosis and mesothelioma.
However, the mounting medical evidence still did not stop the use of asbestos. Only toward the end of the 1970s did the U.S. begin to regulate the use of asbestos, although a total ban still does not exist. However, the European Union and Australia have banned the substance entirely, and many other developed nations are beginning to follow suit. Many manufacturers and companies that used asbestos came under fire for evidence showing they deliberately downplayed or hid the risks of asbestos exposure, fearing their profits would be hurt if they could no longer utilize this cheap, effective material.
Today the United States heavily regulates the use of asbestos. However, its presence in older materials and facilities makes it a continued threat, especially as it ages and fragments into easily-inhaled particles. Asbestos abatement companies are now extremely common, as an entire industry has developed to deal with this past asbestos use.