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The History of Asbestos

Most people think that the history of asbestos is relatively recent because they believe that asbestos is a material that was recently discovered. They also believe it’s only been used in the last several decades and that it simply hasn’t been around all that long; in fact, the history of asbestos goes back literally thousands of years.

History books tell us that in Greek and pre-Roman times, asbestos fibers were used for everything from lamp wicks to Egyptian burial clothes because of their ability to withstand destruction and high heat tolerances. Historians note that the flames at the temples of the Vestal Virgins were kept lit with asbestos flames. Even then, people knew that the fiber-like strands of various minerals known as asbestos could be woven into delicate materials for many uses. Roman tablecloths were made of asbestos so that food stains could simply be burned away and Roman roads sometimes contained asbestos fibers to add tensile strength.

Asbestos – A History of Problems

History of Asbestos - Asbestos warning sign on a dumpster containing asbestos Also obvious is that a study of asbestos history will reveal that even in ancient times people were aware that long-time exposure to asbestos mines or frequent work with asbestos (sewing clothing or, in medieval times, working with asbestos for suits of armor) often led to premature death. In fact, Greek philosophers noted that slaves who worked with this material usually succumbed to some type of lung ailment. Historically, this is one of the earliest connections made between a disease and an environmental factor.

The History of Asbestos - The Deadly Dust

Asbestos and the Industrial Revolution

During the Dark Ages, asbestos fell into disuse as many forms of preparation were lost along with so many other forms of knowledge. The rise of asbestos use didn’t see a revival until the Industrial Revolution, when it once again became a popular material because of the increased demand for heat resistant yet flexible materials for everything from factory boilers to brake pads. The history of asbestos problems in ancient times was forgotten.

Early Uses of Asbestos

Asbestos curtains were even used in theaters to protect against the hazards of fire due to the use of gas footlights, making them one of the more unusual applications in the history of asbestos. Asbestos saw a resurgence of popularity for its insulating qualities and flexibility as well as its relative strength and flexibility. As electricity became more common, asbestos insulation of wiring became quite popular. Historians note that by the middle of the 1800s, you could find asbestos in almost any building, where it routinely insulated pipes, kilns, boilers, ovens and walls.

Link between Asbestos and Cancer Proven

It wasn’t until the 1930s and 1940s that the new suspicions of many who had begun showing signs of illness at the turn of the century were proven. By the early 1900s, many people who worked with asbestos were rediscovering what the ancients already knew – the history of asbestos was a history of illness. Early on, little was done to prove this, but by around 1945 most physicians agreed that long-term exposure led not only to illnesses such as asbestosis, but to certain kinds of cancer.

1960s Asbestos Products Still Remain

The United States was historically somewhat slower responding to concerns about asbestos exposure, but asbestos in the 1960s had all but disappeared for uses such as insulation in favor of more practical and safer alternatives such as fiberglass. However, asbestos from the 1960s, 70s and 80s was left in place in millions of public buildings and private homes. Some of this is still in place today, but strict regulations require the use of safety equipment to handle and dispose of it when and if it is ever removed. Today asbestos is used in a limited number of applications, and it is no longer legal to use it for most types of insulation.

The long-term effects of exposure to asbestos during its heyday that ended sometime after the 1960s are still being felt, however. The history of asbestos tells us that we are bound to find out more about this detrimental product as we move forward.

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