Home  >>  Write  >>  Health  >>  Asbestos  >>  History of Asbestos


History of Asbestos

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that is as soft and flexible as cotton or flax, yet displays many beneficial properties that make it attractive to use – it is fire resistant, resistant to chemical degradation, has high tensile strength, has good thermal and electrical insulating properties, has good frictional properties, and is relatively easy to manipulate and use.  Asbestos' unique combination of properties makes it an extremely useful material that has been used by many cultures in similar applications.   

The use of asbestos dates back more that 3,000 years where evidence of asbestos use in pottery and insulation, in the form of chinking, of log homes were found in archeological excavations in the area that is now Finland.  The Ancient Egyptians also used asbestos to improve durability in their clothes.  Asbestos was also used to embalm the pharaohs.  The Ancient Persian civilization imported asbestos from India for wrapping their dead.  They believed asbestos to be hair from a small mythical animal that lived by fire and died by water.

The Ancient Greek civilization noticed asbestos about 2,000 years ago.  Asbestos was woven into the clothing worn by imported slaves.  After realizing its flame-resistant properties, the Greeks coined the term "asbestos", meaning inextinguishable (Greek a-, "not"; sbestos, "extinguishable"), in recognition of this seemingly magical characteristic.  Strabo, a Greek geographer of the first century, identified what was believed to be the first asbestos quarry on the Greek island of Evvoia.  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.  The name of chrysotile, the most common form of asbestos, is derived from the Greek words "chrysos" (gold) and "tilos" (fiber) or "gold fiber".  The Greeks were the first to also recognize asbestos' harmful biological effects.  Greek geographer, Strabo, noted that many slaves who wore the asbestos suffered from some sickness in the lungs.

The Ancient Roman civilization, like the Greek civilization, used asbestos for its flame-retardant and insulation properties.  The Romans wove asbestos fibers into fabrics to make towels, nets and even head coverings for women.  It was also used in building materials.  Roman restaurants used tablecloths and napkins made of asbestos.  These materials were flame retardant and could be thrown into the fire to remove food and other debris, and placed back on the table for the next customer.  The asbestos cloth would come out of the fire whiter than it went in, so the Romans named asbestos "amiantus", meaning "unpolluted".

Roman Renaissance man, Pliny the Elder, who was a historian, doctor, and naturalist among other things, noted that asbestos was a magical material that could provide protection against all spells, particularly that of the Magi.  He also observed that people, who had been exposed to asbestos at high concentrations, or for a long period of time, were more prone to "lung sickness", particularly those who worked in the asbestos mines.  Pliny the Elder recommended that quarry slaves from asbestos mines not be purchased because of their high incidence of dying young.  Since ailments of the lung were common to anyone who worked with asbestos fibers, Pliny the Elder suggested the use of a respirator made of transparent bladder skin to protect workers from asbestos dust.

Use of asbestos declined during the Middle Ages, yet there are plenty of documentations of its use.  The Roman Emperor Charlemagne, reportedly used an asbestos tablecloth to convince some barbarian guests that he had supernatural powers.  In a well-known story, Charlemagne demonstrated his "powers" by throwing the asbestos tablecloth into a fire, and then pulling it out without any singe marks.  Marco Polo was also shown items made from asbestos cloth on his travels.  Asbestos was also used extensively as insulation in suits of armor. 

Another interesting asbestos-related story during medieval times were the production and sales of asbestos cross.  These asbestos crosses would look like wooden crosses, since some forms of asbestos resemble old wood.  Enterprising, yet unscrupulous, merchants would claim that these "wooden" crosses came directly from the "true cross" – the very same cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified.  Merchants would provide evidence of their divine product, by demonstrating that the cross would not burn when exposed to fire.    

Asbestos became a popular product during the Industrial Revolution during the 1800's to the mid-to-late 20th century.  During the Industrial Revolution, asbestos was used as insulation for steam pipes, turbines, boilers, kilns, ovens, and other high-temperature products.  Near the end of the 19th century, the use of asbestos became even more widespread.  Because of this increased demand, asbestos began to be mined commercially, with the first mine being opened in 1879 at Thetford, in the province of Quebec, in Canada.  At the time, the Thetford Mines produced 300 tons of asbestos annually.  Shortly thereafter, asbestos mining began in Russia.  In the beginning of the next century, mining operations for asbestos began in Australia and Africa, particularly South Africa.

In the United States, asbestos became a highly valuable material, with the advent of the age of the steam locomotive in the 19th century.  Asbestos was an effective solution to the problems of heat buildup and temperature fluctuations in these trains.  Asbestos became a major component in insulating boilers, fireboxes and pipes in steam locomotives.  Boxcars and cabooses, refrigeration units, and steam water lines were all insulated with asbestos.  Even when the steam locomotive switched to diesel power, the new trains would still use asbestos as insulation.  Brakes and clutches continued to be lined with asbestos.

Asbestos continued to be used until World War II, which saw the heavy use of asbestos in many different industries.  During WWII, asbestos was incorporated in ships, insulating many components that were subjected to high heats.  Asbestos was also being used in the automotive industries.  Many automobiles still contain asbestos in clutch and brake linings.  In the construction industries, materials containing asbestos included insulation products, floor and ceiling tiles, siding, and cement pipes.  Most homes and buildings constructed during this time contain asbestos.

Over the last century, it is estimated that over 30 million tons of asbestos have been used over the last century in the United States alone.  Approximately 3,000 products having been produced which have used asbestos in some aspect.  In addition to industrial, maritime, construction, and automotive products, asbestos has been utilized in items such as household appliances and handheld hair dryers, ironing boards, and textiles. 

Ancient observations of the health risks of asbestos were either forgotten or ignored until the turn of the 20th century.  The first documented case of asbestos-related ailments occurred in 1897, when a Viennese physician attributed emaciation and pulmonary problems to asbestos dust inhalation.  The first documented case of an asbestos-related death was reported in 1906 when the autopsy of an asbestos worker revealed lung fibrosis.

Since then, many researchers and medical doctors have provided irrefutable evidence about the dangers of asbestos and asbestos exposure.  When asbestos is broken up, its microscopic crystal particles can remain airborne for prolonged periods of time, and when inhaled can cause a multitude of health problems.  The major ailments being Asbestosis; Mesothelioma – a rare kind of cancer; Asbestos-related lung cancer; and Pleural plaques.  Unfortunately, because of the long time period between exposure to asbestos and the development of asbestos–related diseases, anywhere from a few years to over 40 years, much of the evidence against asbestos was not established until the mid-to-late 20th century, after thousands of people had died due to asbestos exposure.

Since it was revealed that asbestos is undeniably a health hazard in the 1970s, its use has sharply declined. Asbestos is now mainly banned as a building material, mining ceased in Australia in 1983.  It has not been exported since 1984, however chrysotile (white asbestos) is still being imported until the new asbestos regulations come into effect.