History of Asbestos

Earliest Uses: The Greeks and The Romans

The earliest uses of asbestos date back almost 3,000 years to what is now considered Scandinavia, where archeologists have found pottery and chinking of log homes that utilized asbestos. But asbestos use became more prevalent during the apex of the Greek civilization when the "mystical" properties of asbestos made it almost as valuable as gold.  In fact, chrysotile, the most common form of asbestos in use today, is Greek for gold (chrysos) fiber (tilos). 

The Greeks initially wove asbestos into the clothing of slaves, but once its magical fire resistant powers were discovered, the asbestos was incorporated into the wicks of the "eternal" flames of the vestal virgins as well as for clothing for kings and queens, napkins and table cloths, and as insulation in building and ovens.  Most asbestos used by the Greeks likely came from the first asbestos quarry located on the Greek island of Evvoia, and discovered in the first century by the Greek geographer Strabo. 

The Romans also appreciated the fire-resistant nature of asbestos and used it for building construction and wove it into cloth used for head dressings, towels, and, like the Greeks, to make napkins and table cloths.  Asbestos was especially useful in napkins and table clothes.  The Romans would simply toss the soiled napkins or table clothes into the fire where any food scraps or filth would be burned off leaving only the cloth.  Typically the fire-cleaned cloth came out whiter than it did when it entered the fire, leading the Romans to call it "amiantus" meaning "unpolluted."

In addition to the many mystical properties the Greeks and Romans identified in asbestos, they also noted the medical dangers it presented.  Pliny the Elder, a famous Roman naturalist, doctor and historian, documented "sickness of the lung" in the slaves that worked in the asbestos mines.  He discouraged people from buying slaves who worked in the asbestos mines because of their high incidence of dying young and recommended that slaves be equipped with a respirator made of transparent bladder skin.  Thus, the dangers of asbestos have been known, to some degree, since its discovery more than 3,000 years ago.

Asbestos, Charlemagne, and the Medieval Era

After the fall of Rome, asbestos use began to decline.  Napkins, clothing such as capes, and table clothes became artifacts for royalty and the wealthy that used the cloth for parlor tricks.  The emperor Charlemagne was rumored to have used an asbestos-woven table cloth to illustrate his "powers" by removing the undamaged cloth from a fire. 

Other uses during the medieval era included insulation for armor; but, the most fascinating use of asbestos during the period was as a magical cross sold by traveling merchants.  The crosses, cut from asbestos, looked like very old, worn wood and were advertised by merchants as "true crosses" made directly from the wood of the cross upon which Jesus Christ of Nazareth died.  To illustrate the magical cross's powers, the merchants would throw the wood into a fire where it would remain undamaged. 

Asbestos and the Industrial Revolution

Asbestos regained significant popularity as the world, specifically Great Britain, entered the Industrial Revolution.  As powered machinery and steam power became more and more prevalent, so did the need for an efficient and effect way to control the heat needed to create and power the machines at the center of the paradigm shift.  Asbestos served as a perfect insulator for high-temperature products like steam pipes, turbines, ovens, and kilns; all things that helped facilitate the Industrial Revolution. 

The increase in demand for asbestos sparked the first commercial asbestos mines to open in 1879 in Quebec providence of Canada.  Mines opened shortly thereafter in Russia, Australia, and South Africa.  By 1900, doctors started reporting lung sickness and pulmonary fibrosis in patients who had worked in asbestos textile factories and asbestos mines. 

Despite the resurgence of health concerns, asbestos became very important in the United States as the railroad infrastructure was put into place.  Asbestos become an important solution to prevent heat build up and temperature fluctuation in steam powered trains, and again when the steam powered trains shifted to diesel power.  By WWII, asbestos was being used in the shipping industry (as insulation to components subjected to high heat), the automobile industry (as brake and clutch lining), and in the construction industry (in a wide variety of products included insulation, siding, and cement).

Asbestos Dangers and Mesothelioma

In the 1970s, medical journals began publishing articles that linked asbestos to various types of cancer, but the alerts were largely ignored in the wake of a silicosis outbreak that lead to $300 million worth of lawsuits against the employers of those affected by the silicosis.  This prompted asbestos manufacturers to guard their industry from letting word of the dangers slip out into the public (much like the tobacco industry).  It wasn't until the 1970s that the true dangers of asbestos were revealed to the public.  Since then, regulations in most developed countries have now banned or significantly restricted the use of most asbestos.  

Regardless, the dangers from asbestos exposure still exist today and may lead to painful diseases like mesothelioma, which is a form of cancer that eats the lubricating lining that allows your internal organs to move smoothly and painlessly.