History of Asbestos
Asbestos is a naturally occurring substance that was considered a “miracle mineral” for its natural ability to withstand heat, fire and manipulation. Its abilities made asbestos a highly desirable product in the past, with several applications and uses. Asbestos was first mined by the ancient Greeks, ironically enough, considering the mineral’s nomenclature is a derivative of its Roman name, which means “inextinguishable” or “unquenchable." Today, asbestos is known more for its hazardous nature and health risks leading to illness and disease.
Across centuries, asbestos has been used in various applications such as building construction, clothing and even in the burial process. The earliest known use of this material was as a strengthening agent in pots and utensils for inhabitants of Scandinavia over 4,500 years ago. It is also believed that the bodies of royalty were wrapped in shrouds made of asbestos fibers and burned on funeral pyres. Because the asbestos was resistant to fire the clothing surrounding the bodies would remain intact, allowing the ashes to be easily collected.
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Tablecloths and garments made of asbestos could be better cleaned and sanitized by tossing them into a fire. This practice was first witnessed in China by the 13th century Italian explorer Marco Polo. Despite the benefits asbestos seemed to posses, early Romans noted that those who mined the substance or worked around it became sick, often dying premature deaths. Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist, was among the first to document proof connecting symptoms of lung problems to the handling of asbestos.
Despite recorded knowledge concerning the dangers associated with asbestos, the material’s popularity rebounded around the turn of the century. At the start of the Industrial Revolution, asbestos use became widespread in manufacturing and production. Throughout this time the role of the toxic material continued to expand as industries incorporated it into materials for ships, refineries, plants, and for the insulation in the boiler rooms of steam engine trains. Along with these new applications came the same health risks, only in much larger quantities. Thousands of workers, in a variety of industries, were unknowingly exposed, resulting in illness and even death.
Use During the 20th Century
The heavy demand for asbestos continued throughout the twentieth century, with regular use at its height between World War II and the 1960s. During the 1939 World’s Fair there was even a tribute to the material on behalf of the company Johns-Manville. This respect to the mineral’s uses included a giant statue known as “Asbestos Man.” This monument directed visitors to the company’s pavilion where they were espousing the benefits of the material. Popularity for the material continued for the next 25 years, as it could be found everywhere: in homes, factories, schools, and office buildings; manufactured in shingles, cement, glue, tile, drywall, plaster, and car parts. Certain cigarettes even contained asbestos filters.
Long before the implementation of regulations, it was thought that asbestos was making people sick. These early reports, however, remained mostly anecdotal and did not demonstrate a definitive link between exposure and the development of health issues. This changed beginning in the early 1900s, when doctors began reporting patients with lung problems who worked around asbestos. Autopsies were able to confirm what many already suspected: asbestos was the direct causation of the chronic bronchitis and pulmonary fibrosis problems being documented. Eventually, the lung problems connected to asbestos exposure would become referred to as asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Unfortunately, the overwhelming medical evidence pointing to various health concerns did not curb the use of asbestos. It was not until the end of the 1970s that the U.S. began to regulate its use. Today, the substance is still not completely banned and can still be found in various products and elements of construction. Conversely, the European Union and Australia have banned the substance in its entirety, with many other developed nations following suit. Evidence surfaced that showed certain manufacturers and companies continued to use asbestos despite understanding the risks this posed to their employees. Often times, these companies deliberately downplayed or hid the risks of asbestos exposure, attempting to protect their profits over their employees.
Today the United States has instituted heavy regulations regarding the use of asbestos. However, its presence in older materials and facilities continues to pose a threat, particularly as the substance ages, fragmenting into easily-inhaled particles. In an attempt to combat the problem an entire industry has developed; asbestos abatement companies are now commonplace and generally considered the only proper way to go about handling asbestos exposure.