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History of Asbestos

Updated on April 7, 2011

Asbestos Hazard Today

Early days

There is evidence of the use of asbestos in various different countries over 30 centuries ago. During the Middle Ages its popularity waned and was only regained during the Industrial Revolution. It was then used mainly for the insulation of ovens, kilns, steam pipes, boilers and other products requiring insulation.

In the early 18th Century Italy established a textile manufacturing industry that used asbestos in the production of  string, fabrics and book covers.

In 1879 the very first commercial mine was opened in Canada in the town of Quebec. Not long after the Russians started mining asbestos and by the turn of the century South Africa and Australia had followed suit. The use of asbestos had expanded to include insulation, fireproof paint and wall materials. Although the textile industry in Italy still made use of asbestos they became a very small part of the total asbestos market.

Asbetsos Mining - The Beginning

Asbestos-cement corrugated roofing
Asbestos-cement corrugated roofing
Asbestos-cement pipes
Asbestos-cement pipes

The demand for asbestos grew steadily in the building industry during the early 1900’s. This was influenced firstly by the development of the Harschek machine in 1907. This was used for the manufacturing of both flat and corrugated panels using asbestos-cement. The second noteworthy influence was the development of a process which enabled the mass production of asbestos-cement pipes in 1929. These developments resulted in a marked increase in the demand and use for asbestos.

Gaskets for Automobiles
Gaskets for Automobiles
Country House Made with Asbestos Cement
Country House Made with Asbestos Cement

Asbestos - Spreading to Various Industries

Simultaneously the automobile industry introduced the use of asbestos in the manufacturing of gaskets, brakes and clutch components.

By 1910 the United States had become the leading user of asbestos consuming an estimated 43% of the 109,000 metric tons which was then being produced worldwide. The production had increased threefold in the first decade of the 19th century.

Although World War I and the Great Depression caused a slump in production of asbestos the 1930’s, the period following these events, saw an increase in both the production and uses of asbestos spreading to various other industries.

The inherent characteristics of asbestos made it suitable for so many diverse applications and it was soon to be used in fire-proof clothing for fire-fighters, reinforcement for both paint and asphalt road surfaces, flooring products such as under felts and vinyl asbestos tiles, thermal insulation for boiler systems for both residential homes and other buildings – and so asbestos made its way into our homes and our environment.

Asbestos in Older Homes

Asbestos at its Peak

During World War II Canada, South Africa and the United States increased production of asbestos to meet the United States’ growing demand. By 1942 the United States consumed 60% of world production of asbestos.

By 1958 asbestos was used in more than 3,000 applications which increased the demand for asbestos until its peak in 1977. By this time a total of 4.8Mt of asbestos was being produced in approximately 25 countries and being used in manufacturing processes in about 85 different countries.

Why Asbestos Was so Popular

The Downfall of Asbestos

During the 1970’s the use of asbestos declined in the United States following reports by Dr Seikoff and Lee in 1978 which proved conclusively that there was a correlation between lung cancer and asbestos exposure. Earlier reports of research conducted during the 1920’s and 1940’s had suggested an association between asbestos exposure and asbestosis but opposition to its use only really came to the fore after the later findings.

A shift away from asbestos followed as manufacturers sought asbestos substitutes due to an increase in lawsuits filed on behalf of people suffering from asbestos related diseases (ARD) such as Mesothelioma, Asbestosis and Asbestos related Lung Cancer.

By 2003 sixteen countries had imposed full or partial bans on the use of asbestos due to both health and liability factors.—Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Chile, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Swit­zerland, and the United Kingdom

The Road Ahead for Asbestos

Asbestos - more in court and less in our homes
Asbestos - more in court and less in our homes


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    • Laura du Toit profile image

      Laura du Toit 6 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks Paradise - Glad you could learn something about asbestos - We should all be more aware of the hidden dangers around us.

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 6 years ago from Upstate New York

      Great hub! I learn something new everyday on HubPages from people like you, Laura, who write well-informed and interesting articles.

    • Laura du Toit profile image

      Laura du Toit 6 years ago from South Africa

      Thank you alekhouse - to me it was more horrifying than intersting!

    • alekhouse profile image

      Nancy Hinchliff 6 years ago from Essex Junction, Vermont

      Really interesting hub.