From World War II through the mid 1970s, textile mills used asbestos extensively, sometimes exclusively, in the production of textile cloth. The popularity of asbestos was due mainly to its innate qualities: flexibility, heat resistance and durability. The most popular type of asbestos fiber, chrysolite, was used extensively in textile mills due to the ease with which its long fibers could be converted to yarn. Draperies, fire fighter outfits and blankets, gas mask filters, roofing felt, and oven insulation were a few of the many applications for asbestos cloth.
Textile weavers participated in the last step of asbestos cloth manufacturing: weaving the asbestos yarn into cloth. Working directly with the raw material, weavers were much more likely to breath or swallow asbestos fibers that were floating in the air, and are at an incredibly high risk of contracting an asbestos-related disease. Exposure to airborne asbestos for even a short time could result in mesothelioma, a cancer of the protective lining of the lungs, many years, even decades, after the exposure.
Asbestos and the Textile Industry
The connection between environmental asbestos exposure and mesothelioma is well established. One British medical study in particular examined the lungs of 103 deceased textile mill workers. The conclusions the study drew were astounding. The lungs of asbestos textile mill workers was 300 times higher in asbestos than the average UK citizen, and for the people in the study who had been diagnosed with mesothelioma, the onset of the disease after exposure was between 27 and 55 years.
During the 1970s, the link between asbestos and asbestos-related diseases became undeniable, and many textile mills were faced with having to decide what steps they would take to restructure the textile cloth-making process. The difficulties the textile manufacturers faced were compounded by the revelations that many of them knew of the potential for asbestos-related diseases and did not disclose the information to their workers. While many companies adapted to the change in manufacturing operations, many more were forced to close their doors. In 1989, the EPA issued a rule banning the manufacturing of most asbestos related products.