A naturally-occurring mineral now known to cause asbestos cancer, asbestos has long been considered a miracle material. Boasting excellent heat- and fire-resistant properties, asbestos has a history that dates back to the ancient Greek island of Ewoia—what is believed to be the site of the first asbestos mine. As a matter of fact, the word “asbestos” comes from a Greek word meaning “inextinguishable.”
Even centuries ago, people were awed by this mineral for which they found many uses. Asbestos has long been used as a building material, even as far back as during the Holy Roman Empire. It was also utilized to produce fabric that would be used in clothing and a variety of other textiles. Legend has it that an early Roman emperor used to marvel at the fact that he could throw his asbestos tablecloth into the fire after meals and it would emerge clean and unscathed! Early Egyptians used cloths made of asbestos to wrap their dead, believing it would last for centuries to come.
However, despite its many uses, even the early civilizations surmised that asbestos was the cause of the pulmonary problems being exhibited by those who worked in the mines where asbestos was extracted or those who spun and wove asbestos into fabric. In particular, Roman philosopher and naturalist Pliny the Elder noted that slaves who mined asbestos suffered from a sickness of the lungs and died at an early age.
As the centuries waned, however, asbestos use continued, and when the Industrial Revolution unfolded, the material enjoyed all sorts of new uses in factories and plants throughout the U.S. and abroad. Once again a “miracle mineral”, asbestos began being mined in earnest in the late 1800s and many industries gobbled it up quickly.
Asbestos found use not only in factories, but also in oil and chemical refineries, on railroad cars, and in shipyards. Asbestos materials were used to insulate pipes and boilers in steam locomotives, to line tanks and ovens in refineries, and could be found literally everywhere aboard the nation’s ships, from engine rooms to galleys. Tens of thousands of workers would soon be exposed on a daily basis and many would later begin to experience the same problems as those from centuries past who worked in the asbestos mines.
As the twentieth century progressed, more and more uses for asbestos were found. It was used in the brakes and clutches of new-fangled automobiles, insulated America’s new skyscrapers, and especially found much popularity in the construction industry, where it was used in items like cement, roof shingles, floor and ceiling tiles, siding, stucco, plaster, and much more.
By the middle of the 1900s, it was once again becoming apparent that asbestos was causing health problems. Those who were especially susceptible to developing asbestos-related diseases and disorders were individuals who were exposed to the mineral when it was enjoying abundant use – mostly from the 1940s through the 1970s. Navy veterans and shipyard employees were among those most likely to develop asbestosis and mesothelioma cancer but others who worked with asbestos regularly were certainly not exempt.
Unfortunately, records have shown that many business owners who employed the use of asbestos in their facilities knew that the material was dangerous yet continued to allow its use. Eventually, stories of sick employees became commonplace, causing the American government to consider imposing laws about the use of asbestos. They finally did this in the late 1970s, though never officially “banned” asbestos use in the United States
Some countries still mine asbestos – mostly the “white” chrysotile form – and it is still exported from these locations to other countries around the world. However, more than 40 countries have totally banned the use of asbestos, recognizing its toxicity.
Consumer Product Safety Commission. Asbestos: Historical Abstract. 2001