While today the art of blacksmithing is just that, an art, it used to be a necessary career for forging and repairing various metals. A blacksmith traditionally used fire to heat metal and then forge (or form) it as needed. This was done to make tools, to sharpen tools and parts, to make ornate décor, or to repair equipment. Farriers are also blacksmiths, although they specialize in making horseshoes through the blacksmithing process. To become a blacksmith, you typically need to complete an apprenticeship program with on-the-job training. Since blacksmiths deal with intense degrees of heat, they have some possible risk of exposure to asbestos.
Asbestos as a Flame Retardant
A blacksmith needs to take several precautions in his line of work, which mostly includes heat and fire safety. Since asbestos has a high tolerance for flame, fire retardant clothes and aprons were at one time made with asbestos. Other precautions included keeping a fire from starting and spreading, which meant protecting the floor and the walls. Once again, since asbestos has a heat resistant quality, having fire-resistant floors that were made with asbestos made sense for a blacksmith's shop.
Walls were also insulated with asbestos, providing two benefits with one product. Insulation helps keep rooms an even temperature, and using asbestos for it added fire protection should fire-hot metal touch a wall.
Risks at Work
It is generally accepted that certain jobs are more dangerous than others. Still, in America today, we have come to expect that jobsite hazards will be minimized, risks will be clearly communicated, and employers will strive to create a safe work environment. Unfortunately, even in recent history, these expectations were not always met when it came to asbestos exposure, and employees were subjected to conditions that jeopardized their health.
Asbestos and Human Health
There are two major groups of asbestos and both are associated with mesothelioma. Chrysotile, sometimes referred to as "white" asbestos, is the sole mineral of the serpentine group, a relatively soft variety and was the form most frequently used commercially. The second group is known as the amphibole group which is made up of amosite (brown asbestos) and crocidolite (blue asbestos) which are both commercially used and anthophyllite, tremolite and actinolite which are typically not commercially used. Exposure to both groups of asbestos is the primary cause of pleural mesothelioma, an unusual and frequently fatal cancer of the mesothelium (the lining between the lungs and the pleural cavity). More unusual types of mesothelioma include pericardial and peritoneal mesothelioma; these diseases are also caused by exposure to asbestos.
Why It Was Used
Asbestos was, ironically, generally used because of its ability to safeguard people's lives. Chrysotile asbestos is one of the best insulators known when it comes to fire and temperature extremes and has been used for the purpose for centuries. Amphibole forms of asbestos also had other traits that made them useful in industrial situations. For instance, amosite, also known as "brown" asbestos, has a high iron content, making it resistant to chemical corrosion. "Blue" asbestos, or crocidolite, is very good at insulating against electric current and was often chosen whenever high voltage was an issue. ACMs (asbestos-containing materials) that would protect lives and property against fire, extreme temperatures, electrical contact and caustic chemicals could be made by combining multiple kinds of fibers.
Asbestos did not offer a health hazard so long as it was solid. As these ACMs got older, however, they were prone to becoming friable (i.e., easily reduced to powder by hand pressure alone). Friable asbestos is a problem since in this state the particles are readily dispersed into the environment; breathing in asbestos fibers may cause disorders like cancer. Unfortunately, it wasn't just employees who were at risk; secondary exposure frequently happened when workers brought asbestos particles home on their skin, in their hair or on their clothing.
The Lurking Hazard of Asbestos
One of the insidious aspects of exposure to asbestos is the resulting illnesses can take ten, twenty, or even thirty years to manifest - often decades after the worker leaves the employer. It can also be difficult to identify asbestos-related ailments because the symptoms are similar to the symptoms of other conditions. Especially with mesothelioma, the sooner the diagnosis, the higher the odds of survival or at the least of improved quality of life. People that worked as blacksmiths, as well as anyone who spent much time with them, should therefore inform their physicians about the chance of exposure to asbestos. As mesothelioma survival rate traditionally has been grim, early diagnosis and consistent treatment such as mesothelioma radiation can improve the prognosis for this disease.Sources
Apprentice Search - About Trades, Blacksmith, What Does a Blacksmith Do?
Bowker, Michael. Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos (New York: Touchstone, 2003)
The Natural Handyman - Harry . . . eat slowly, the doctor said you shouldn't inhale your fiber: Asbestos on the Chopping Block
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource - News, DNR News, Articles, Demolition of buildings by burning can release asbestos and other hazardous materials