Early Asbestos Use
Asbestos is a naturally occurring magnesium silicate material that is found below ground level throughout many parts of the world. The ancient Greeks and Romans were among the first to discover the interesting properties of this substance, namely its resistance to heat and fire. Over the centuries asbestos has been mined for its value as a flame retardant and its insulating properties, and although a connection was made long ago between exposure to asbestos and respiratory health issues, the mining of this compound continued unchecked until the latter part of the 20th century.
Modern Asbestos Use
In the last two decades of the 19th century, asbestos mines were operating in North America, Europe and other parts of the world. In 1879 the first commercial asbestos mine in North America opened in the province of Quebec, Canada. Within a few years, a number of mining operations were underway in several locations where large deposits had been discovered. The mineral found its way into the manufacturing industry because of the ease with which it could be processed into tiles, ceiling and wall panels, and as a wrapping for steam pipes and boiler units.
Workers in these mines were subjected to constant exposure to asbestos fibers, which are very small and can float freely in the surrounding air if loosened. Thousands of employees who mined for asbestos became ill with a number of respiratory ailments, and records kept by medical professionals confirmed a direct link to the inhalation of asbestos. Nonetheless, very little was done in the way of research to examine just how asbestos affected the lungs in humans and for decades the number of illnesses and even fatalities among asbestos miners continued to rise.
By the 1960s the amount of asbestos mined in the U.S. was approaching 115,000 metric tons annually, while worldwide mining approached 2.8 million tons. However, in 1977 the United States government issued the first strong warnings concerning asbestos exposure among miners and those who worked at facilities where asbestos was used. It had been confirmed that asbestos fibers acted as a carcinogen in the pleural lining of the lungs and was a major cause of lung cancer, the newly identified asbestosis, and a dangerous malignancy catalogued as mesothelioma.
After this discovery, the amount of asbestos mining in the U.S. and several other countries began to see a steady decline, as many in the industrial work sector refused to install this material in factories and other buildings where high heat was present. By the early 21st century, asbestos mining in the U.S. ceased entirely, though production continues in varying degrees in other nations. The number of miners who suffered from asbestos-related ailments is not known, but is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. Even today there are former mine workers that are only now being diagnosed with mesothelioma, which can present initial symptoms 20 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos fibers.
- Luus, Kristina. (July 2007) “Asbestos : mining exposure, health effects and policy implications.” Retrieved on April 15, 2011 from the Mcgill Journal of Medicine.