History of Asbestos

The history of asbestos traces back to ancient times. It’s ability to fireproof certain materials made it a staple in the automobile, manufacturing, and chemical industries; as well as others. The United States military also took note of it’s fireproofing properties and implemented in every branch of the military. The initial objective of this substance was for the increased safety of individuals. The unfortunate outcome of overusing this mineral was dangerous health hazards. As useful as this substance is, it has become an increasing hazard to humans. Some of the health threatening diseases that comes from asbestos is asbestos is, mesothelioma, and cancer of the lungs.

Most people don’t realize that asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral; that is produced on every major region around the globe. Archaeologist have found traces of asbestos that dates before the Stone Age. This led to the assumption that the mineral’s long fibers were used in ancient times for lamps and other lighting fixtures. During 2500 BC, dead pharaohs from Egypt were covered in asbestos fibered cloths. This was done to prevent the body from decaying. Egyptians would also do this for royal animals once they passed on.

Around 3000 BC in Finland, the mineral was used for clay pottery. This was done to make the parts fireproof and weather resistant. The Greeks also used this substance to cover dead bodies before cremation. The goal of this ritual was to keep the ashes intact; so that they would not break loose in the fire. Many populations of people in different global territories have long-used asbestos for various reasons. It is believed that ancient Romans would weave asbestos fibers into house materials such as tablecloths and towels. Once it was time to clean these materials, they would be set on fire. This process of igniting the tablecloths would not tarnish the material; but left it clean as if it were brand new, once the fire was extinguished.

Although nations like Greece and Rome utilized the efficiency of asbestos, they took note of it’s health hazards on the people who mined for the mineral. Many of the slaves who worked in asbestos shops developed severe sickness in their lungs; and an overall decrease in health. At times, the health of workers would decline so rapidly that bladders from lambs would be used as respirators; to filter out asbestos from inhalation.

During 755, the king of France had tableware that was woven from asbestos to prevent it from catching fire and being destroyed. Accidental fires often took place during big dinners and parties. King Charlemagne also used the asbestos mineral to cover bodies of dead soldiers. These forms of cremation cloaks would also grow in popularity in North Italy. The popular substance would find it’s way into many wars and battles. Around 1095, French and German knights would use asbestos bags set on fire for their catapults to impose city walls and seizes. Benjamin Franklin was also a fan of this convenient yet hazardous material. He had a collection of purses and bags made from asbestos. They are now stored in the Natural History Museum of The United Kingdom.

Although asbestos has been very popular in ancient times, the manufacturing of the substance began to take off in the 1800s. Around the time of the industrial revolution, asbestos was used heavily for armor, clothing, ammunition, housing, paper, and much more. The asbestos industry was at an all-time high. However, with this boom of business came an increased health concern to those who refined the material. The mineral was at it’s height in popularity; and was being used in every industry imaginable.

What made it so appealing to various industries was it’s resistance to fire and electricity; as well as it’s insulation properties. At the turn of the 19th century, the first commercial mine was created for asbestos in Canada. As a result of this, Russia aligned themselves with Canada to utilize asbestos in it’s original form. Other countries would soon follow with the commercialization and promotion of asbestos. These countries included Germany, England and Australia; to name a few. By this time, there were three major types of asbestos: blue asbestos, white asbestos, and brown asbestos. Each type of the mineral was native to a different region in the world. As asbestos continued to grow in use and popularity, many respiratory ailments were linked to it. Still, the United States government did not put a ban on the substance. During 1970, the federal government began limiting the levels of asbestos exposure. The history of asbestos gives insight to it’s former uses; and a caution to it’s current use.

Robert SteinbergHistory of Asbestos