To many who’ve been touched by asbestos in some way or another, we tend to think of it as an invention of the 20th century; a new-fangled material that has caused plenty of damage. But that’s far from the truth…
A naturally-occurring mineral that is found in many parts of the world, asbestos was discovered centuries ago and has long been considered a miracle material. Best known for its excellent heat- and fire-resistant properties, it has a history that is believed to date all the way back to the ancient Greek island of Ewoia, where the first asbestos mine was located. (The word “asbestos” comes from a Greek word meaning “inextinguishable.”)
Asbestos has long been used as a building material, even as far back as during the Holy Roman Empire. In addition, it was used to produce fabric that was employed in the creation of clothing and a variety of other textiles. Legend has it that an early Roman emperor was awed by the fact that he could throw his asbestos tablecloth into the fire after particularly messy meals and it would emerge clean and unharmed. It was also used to wrap the dead in early Egypt because it was believed that it would last for centuries to come.
However, 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 by 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. He recommended that no one hire those who had been employed in the mines. Nonetheless, asbestos use continued.
When the Industrial Revolution came to pass, the material enjoyed all sorts of new uses in factories and plants throughout the U.S. and abroad. Asbestos found its way into oil and chemical refineries, steel mills, was used in 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 mills, 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 miners of long ago.
As the twentieth century progressed, more and more uses for asbestos were found. It was used in the brakes and clutches of 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 more.
By the middle of the 1900s, the evidence of health problems associated with asbestos exposure was again becoming clear. Company doctors were warning owners/managers of the risks of its continued use. Among the most affected were Navy veterans and shipyard employees but others who worked with asbestos regularly, like those employed in steel mills and other industries, were showing high rates of asbestosis and mesothelioma as well.
Eventually, tales of sick employees became commonplace and concerned officials finally sat up and listened in the 1970s, causing the American government to consider imposing laws about the use of asbestos. They finally did this in the latter part of that decade, though asbestos has NEVER been officially banned in the U.S., despite the fact that the use of the mineral has been outlawed in more than four dozen countries.