Asbestos has been used since ancient times as a fibrous component in a variety of materials, including tablecloths and burial shrouds. The Romans understood the importance of this silicate material because it did not burn and was therefore reusable; housekeepers often took dirty table linens made from asbestos and exposed them to flame, cleaning them effectively without harming the asbestos itself.
During the industrial age of the late 19th century protective clothing sometimes had asbestos fibers woven into the garment, which then served as an effective insulator and fire retardant for workers exposed to tremendous heat. These garments were manufactured at textile mills in the Americas, Europe and Asia, but the workers at these facilities were exposing themselves to a danger as great as the ones faced by the people who would later wear this protective gear.
Workers at textile mills take cotton, wool or other fibers and wash them, bleach the strands, weave them on special machinery and often bathe them in a solution that curls the fibers to make the resulting clothes more durable. Afterwards the materials are dried in large machines that also extract some of the added chemicals. This process is dangerous if asbestos is used as a material in protective clothing, because many of the microscopic fibers that make up asbestos are loosened and become airborne.
Weaving asbestos into other textiles is hard work, and it also results in an accumulation of dust. Workers at textile mills would breathe in this dust and capture asbestos fibers in their lungs. In addition, the airborne fibers would settle onto other materials in the production plant. The large drying machines used in the textile mills would also release asbestos fibers during the high heat drying process, and if the machine was not routinely cleaned these fibers could be driven into other clothing that was dried at a later time. The machines themselves were often fitted with asbestos paneling to act as an insulating shield against the extreme temperatures of the drying process.
Employees at textile mills usually did not realize how much asbestos they were inhaling, nor were they aware of the huge amount of fibers being transported throughout the facility, carried by convection from opened drying machines. Asbestos fibers settle into the pleural linings of the lungs, remain dormant for many years and then act as a carcinogen. The surrounding tissue is affected and a number of dangerous conditions are now catalogued by medical professionals. Mesothelioma is the most serious of these diseases, and as of this date there is no cure.