Many people mistakenly believe that asbestos is a "miracle" product of the 20th century. That couldn't be further from the truth. Because asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, individuals have used it for centuries, quickly recognizing its insulating and heat-resistant properties and using them to their advantage.
Asbestos in Ancient Times
The word "asbestos" comes from the Greek meaning "inextinguishable." Most likely, records indicate, the first asbestos mine was located in Greece on the island of Ewoia and was established sometime around the first century A.D. However, even the early Greeks recognized that not everything about asbestos was good. Greek geographer Strabo and the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder both noted a penchant for "sickness of the lungs" in the slaves that wove asbestos into cloth or mined the mineral.
However, most of early civilization found myriad uses for this "miracle" product. Historians note that during the times of the Holy Roman Empire, asbestos was already being used in building materials, thanks to its strength and fire-resistant properties. It was also used in women's clothing and other textiles. It is said that Romans would throw their asbestos tablecloths and napkins into the fire to clean them. The result, of course, was a perfectly intact cloth that was free of stains!
It is also noted that the Egyptians used asbestos cloth to wrap their dead and other civilizations chose the material to fashion suits of armor. Asbestos was also used by less-than-honest merchants who made crosses from the mineral and sold them as pieces of Christ's cross, due to the fact that the asbestos gave off a worn, weathered-wood appearance.
The Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution represented a huge boom for the asbestos industry. Factories were opening everywhere and new uses for the miracle mineral were being devised on a regular basis. Commercial asbestos mines sprung up in the late 1800s and entrepreneurs recognized that asbestos could perhaps make them rich.
The railroad industry was among the first to make extensive use of asbestos and asbestos-containing products, and because the railroad industry was growing in leaps and bounds, the need for more asbestos grew. Railroad engineers began to use asbestos materials to line refrigeration units, boxcars, and cabooses and the material was found to be especially useful as insulation for pipes, boilers, and fireboxes in that era's steam locomotives.
The shipyard industry wasn't far behind. Shipbuilders made extensive use of the material as well, not unlike the railroad. Some typical uses included insulation for steam pipes, boilers, hot water pipes, and incinerators. In fact, asbestos was so widely used aboard ships that those who worked in the industry are among the most affected by asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma and asbestosis. Shipbuilding became especially dangerous during war time, when the industry was at its peak and literally millions worked building and repairing ships.
The Twentieth Century
As automobiles became popular in the early years of the 20th century, that industry also latched on to asbestos. In cars, the magical mineral was used in brake pads and shoes, and in clutch plates, all classified as "friction" products. Asbestos was also used for the brakes in the new-fangled elevators that graced America's growing crop of skyscrapers.
By far, however, it was the building industry that gave asbestos its largest boost. Everyone, of course, wanted their homes and offices to be safe and warm, so fire-resistant asbestos seemed like the perfect product for those purposes. Asbestos was soon to be found everywhere in homes and commercial buildings. It was used as wall insulation, for floor and ceiling tiles, in exterior siding, and in roofing tar and shingles. Asbestos could also be found in stucco, drywall tape, gaskets, cement pipes, rain gutters, plaster, putty, caulk, and a host of other building products. Schools and theaters even boasted asbestos curtains, considered to be safer than other standard fabrics because of its strength and heat resistance.
When the use of asbestos was at its highest - probably in the 1940s to 1970s - an estimated 3,000 products made use of its unique properties. You could find asbestos in hair dryers, irons and ironing board covers, toasters, coffee pots, and electric blankets. Because asbestos is also found in vermiculite or talc, trace amounts could also be detected in cosmetics and powders as well as fertilizer and potting soils.
The EPA warnings and regulations of the 1970s and beyond put an end to much of the industry, but countries remain where chrysotile asbestos is still mined and exported. Though there's relatively little chance of experiencing the degree of exposure that many suffered in the 20th century, the risk is still there; in older buildings, imported auto products, and in places where natural deposits of the mineral are commonplace.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Asbestos and Vermicultite. "Asbestos Ban and Phase Out." 25 April 2007.
- U. S. Geological Survey. "Asbestos Statistics and Information." 20 March 2007.
Last modified: December 28, 2010.