Asbestos: A History

Asbestos is a mineral that served as a staple of the Industrial Era in the United States.

The U.S. began regulating asbestos in the early 1970s, but the mineral has been used for centuries and is still being used in many products to this day.

Asbestos has incredible fireproofing properties which made it a popular product for many industries including construction, manufacturing, automobile, chemical, and power. Even the U.S. military was using asbestos in many products.

Exposure to asbestos through inhalation or ingestion has been linked to several health problems such as lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma. Although asbestos hit its peak in the U.S. in the 70s, this mineral was widely used all over the globe before that.

Ancient Asbestos Uses

Asbestos is a naturally occurring material and its properties are not a secret.

In the time of the Egyptian pharaohs, asbestos was woven into cloth and then used to wrap the embalmed bodies of the pharaohs when they passed. Wrapping their bodies in this cloth protected them from deterioration when buried. 

The Greeks used this same concept but took advantage of the fireproof properties of the cloth. They wrapped their deceased before throwing them on the funeral pyres where the cloth served as a fireproof barrier to keep the wood ashes and ashes of the person separate. 

Although the harmful effects of asbestos exposure have made it into public attention relatively recently, there is documentation from the ancient Greeks and Romans of the health issues that their miners experienced. They noticed symptoms of lung disease in the men who worked in the stone quarries and in those who wove asbestos into cloth. 

Middle Age Usage

During this time period, asbestos was still used in cloth to wrap the bodies of the deceased, as well as for everyday uses such as napkins and tablecloths. This was done because reportedly the napkins could be tossed into a hot fire to clean them of debris while not ruining or burning the napkin itself. Asbestos was even used in the paper in Italy for the same reason and used as one material to create their banknotes as well. The fireproof property was highly sought after for many products, even for uniforms worn by firefighters in the 19th century due to their high resistance to heat.

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution brought new demand for asbestos for manufacturing. The many uses of this versatile product became well-known and widespread all over the world.

The more products that were produced, the more attention was being brought to the fact that exposure to the dust and fibers was creating health problems. 

Asbestos was an incredibly lucrative mineral, however, and so little attention was paid to the harmful effects it was having on the lungs of those who came into contact with it. 

The fireproof property of asbestos was not the only benefit of the mineral. Asbestos is also heat resistant, water-resistant, and has impressive insulation potential. These newfound benefits allowed asbestos to make its way into other industries and applications, such as electrical generators, ovens, boilers, and the railroad industry.

Since asbestos is made of fine fibers, it is easy to incorporate into almost any material. It can be woven into cloth, mixed with concrete, and combined into other building materials, strengthening them while adding heat and water-resistant properties. 

Asbestos Mining

There are three commonly used types of asbestos fibers: chrysotile, amosite, and crocidolite.

Chrysotile is the most widely used and is the common white variety that most people think of when they think of asbestos.

Crocidolite is a blue variety while amosite is a brown variety. During the heat of debate over the dangers of asbestos, the asbestos industry attempted to convince people that the only dangerous form of asbestos was the blue crocidolite variety, which only accounts for about 10% of the asbestos produced in the world.  

Chrysotile was discovered in southeastern Quebec in 1876. Not long after that, Canada launched a commercial mining operation, the first in the world. 

Crocidolite had already been discovered in Africa at this point but was never used to the extent that the white variety of asbestos was. 

Throughout the 1870s, the asbestos industry began booming in England, Germany, and Scotland. Word quickly spread all over the world. 

Production of Asbestos

Mining asbestos was a slow and tiring process until the late 1800s. Miners would spend the whole day chipping away at the soft fibers, and even then the raw product was far from being incorporated into products. 

In the late 1800s during the Industrial Revolution, steam-powered machinery was used to meet the ever-growing demand for asbestos. Women and children began working in factories to spin fibers for making cloth goods, while the men spent time harvesting the raw minerals from the earth. 

As more asbestos was manufactured, people began coming up with more and more uses for the versatile products.

H.W. Johns Manufacturing Company in New York began selling fireproof roofing material made with asbestos, among other things. It became one of the biggest manufactures in the country at the time.

Asbestos was also used for carriages, pipes, cement, and dozens of other applications during this time.

The Hazards of Asbestos

Although the Greeks and Romans documented the hazardous effects of asbestos exposure, there was no clear scientific link until just before the 20th century. With production and mining of asbestos running rampant on a global scale, people started taking notice that there was a link because of pulmonary (lung) issues and exposure to the mineral. 

We now know that these diseases can be fatal, and include mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that impacts the lining of the lungs, abdomen, and even the heart. 

An Australian doctor noticed the connection between asbestos and lung diseases in 1897 when one of his patients inhaled asbestos dust and developed lung trouble. Factory workers in England took notice as well, noting widespread injury from exposure to asbestos in the workplace. 

In 1906, the first documented death attributed to asbestos exposure occurred in London, revealing copious amounts of asbestos fibers in the lungs of a young worker. Reports of premature worker deaths started coming in from all over the world. 

Insurance companies of course took notice of this, increasing premiums for people working in the asbestos industry, and lowering the payout for those suffering the consequences of asbestos exposure. 

Asbestos Production Continues

Asbestos production continued despite the troubling health warnings, disease, and deaths connected with exposure to the mineral.

Not only did the production continue, but it increased three-fold in just a decade. 

The United States began producing and consuming mass amounts of asbestos, quickly becoming the world’s leader in usage. Canada was producing cost-effective products in mass amounts, and the U.S. was using these materials at a steady pace, building new infrastructure from roads to school buildings and everything in between.

What Products Contain Asbestos?

Asbestos can be found in just about any construction material one can think of. Since asbestos is such a versatile material, it was combined with numerous other materials to make them fire-resistant and more durable, therefore more marketable. 

Asbestos was used to lace asphalt for new roads for almost 20 years. It was used to mix into cement, put into roofing and flooring mixtures, and used to make gaskets and packing materials for the construction industry. 

It was also used as insulation for electrical wiring, electrical panels, fire-retardant coatings, brake pads for automobiles and aircraft, insulation for homes and office buildings, fillers for paint, plasters, caulking, and many more applications.

The uses for asbestos were expanding and endless and dozens of industries were in on the cost-effective secret.

Is Asbestos Still Used?

Asbestos is still used widely to this day, though usage reached its peak in 1973.

It was during the 1970s when the general public began to understand the dangerous link between asbestos exposure and serious health problems such as asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. 

All of these serious lung problems stemmed from prolonged exposure and inhalation or ingestion of the asbestos fibers and dust. These fibers can settle into the lungs and are difficult if not impossible for the body to process or get rid of. This leads to numerous complications and eventually leads to death.

During this time, labor unions began to rise against the mining and manufacturing of asbestos, calling for safer and healthier working conditions. They rallied for more protections from continued asbestos exposure, and for healthcare for those who had been impacted by previous exposure. 

Labor unions worked politically as well, supporting candidates that took their grievances seriously, and who would work for meaningful change in asbestos manufacturing to protect workers who were being exposed on a daily basis.

Liability claims were also made against many manufacturers of asbestos, forcing them to get creative in the pursuit of asbestos alternatives. These claims did not stop production altogether, however.

In the early 2000s, environmental groups began pushing for bans on asbestos production in products in many countries including but not limited to France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Chile, Argentina, and the U.K.

In 2005, they won a ban in the European Union. Many other countries, including the United States, have continued heavy usage of asbestos with no sign of a ban any time soon.

No Ban in the United States

Even though there has been mounting evidence of asbestos exposure causing serious health problems, including a prominent link to mesothelioma, the United States still has not banned the use of the mineral. 

In the 1970s, steps were taken in the right direction as regulations of exposure to the mineral were started up. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began pushing for legislation in the late 1980s, but the product was only banned for two years before that ruling was overturned in 1991, making asbestos legal yet again. 

While asbestos use and production have declined significantly since its peak, having no ban on the material means it still appears in many household products and construction materials that are used daily. 

There are now some regulations, forcing manufacturers to notify the EPA when incorporating asbestos into their products, so they are available for inspection. 

There is no longer an asbestos mine in the United States, with the last one closing in 2002, but the U.S. still imports asbestos and uses it in products that are widely used. 

There have been multiple bills that have been presented to Congress in an attempt to create a national registry for people who have mesothelioma. This would provide a map and a way to visually track the massive impact of asbestos exposure on our nation. None of these bills have passed yet, but labor unions will likely continue to advocate for these bills. 

Other Implications of Asbestos Usage

There is also a large opposition to asbestos because of its prominent presence in schools that were built in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of the construction materials used to build these elementary and secondary schools contained asbestos, including popcorn ceilings, cement, chalkboards, paint, roofing, and numerous other materials.

Now about 60-70 years later, some of these materials are beginning to deteriorate, releasing harmful dust and fiber from asbestos that has the possibility of contaminating the air and putting people at risk of exposure.

The release of asbestos dust and fiber is problematic because it is exposing children and teachers who are unsuspecting and do not realize the dangers of their environment. 

The Environmental Protection Agency lobbied for legislation to protect students and teachers and ultimately passed the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), which provides guidance, regulation, and management strategies for asbestos in school buildings. 

Now all school districts are tasked with creating and implementing a plan to identify hazardous asbestos and make sure it is either maintained or removed for the safety of students, teachers, and staff.

Time will tell what the next era of asbestos use, or ban of use, will be worldwide.

Asbestos: A History