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The History of Asbestos and Mesothelioma Today, with Videos

Updated on December 24, 2012

Asbestos History

Asbestos is actually six different silicate minerals found in nature. These include actinolite, amosite, anthrophyllite, chrysolite, crocidolite, and tremolite. The different types of asbestos all have long thin fibers made up of crystals. The fibers are unusually soft and pliable, and they’re inherently resistant to fire. Once considered a “miracle mineral” because of its seemingly salient characteristics, asbestos has been used by mankind for thousands of years.

There is evidence that man used asbestos as early as 3,000BC. Archeologists found pieces of pottery in Scandinavia that contained asbestos. Also found at the excavation sites were bits of chinking from crude cabins that used fibers from the mineral.

More than 2,000 years ago, the ancient Greeks used asbestos. In fact, they’re the ones who named it, using the Greek work for “inextinguishable.” They used asbestos fibers to weave cloth for napkins and robes, especially the chrysolite form of the mineral, whose name is derived from the Greek words chrysos, which means gold, and tilos, which means fibers. They also used the substance to make the wicks for the eternal flames used in worship services for the vestal virgins as they honored the deities. Asbestos was used for a very important occasion – in the cremation process of their deceased kings.

The Romans continued the Greek use of asbestos. In the first century AD, the asbestos-woven cloth was used to make apparel for women. It was often the favorite material for tablecloths because it was so easy to clean. Heavily soiled cloths could be removed from the table, tossed into the nearby fire, and come out spotless. Many Romans believed that building materials made from asbestos offered them protection from evils in their homes, as was noted by Pliny the Elder.

When Italian explorer Marco Polo visited Siberia in the 1200s, the Tartars who resided there introduced him to a piece of cloth that was immune to fire. They told Polo that it was woven from the wool of the fire salamander – an animal believed to thrive in fiery conditions. The explorer was somewhat dubious and began to investigate the claims. After questioning the locals, he learned of a mineral found in the nearby mountain region that was both pliable and resistant to fire. He later discovered that the center for asbestos at the time was Uighuristan. Polo was so impressed with the asbestos cloth that he presented a sample of it to the pope upon his return to Italy.

During the Middle Ages, with the rise of Christianity in Europe, asbestos played a part. Most of the masses were uneducated and easily duped. Many of these people zealously sought any sort of holy relic or religious artifact, believing it could perform a number of miracles or provide heavenly blessings. Dishonest merchants took advantage of this fact and created small crosses from asbestos, claiming them to be made of the cross on which Christ was crucified. Since the crosses would not burn like ordinary wood, the claim was usually heartily embraced.

The Middle Ages was the time of dashing knights in armor fighting the Crusades and protecting their lords. Suits of armor were forged of metal and could be dangerously hot in summer and icy cold in winter. To provide insulation for the metal suits, asbestos was widely used.

In the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Railroads criss-crossed the countryside in order to deliver raw goods to factories and to take the finished manufactured goods from the factories to large towns and cities for dispersement. Again, asbestos was there and had a large role. Train engineers began using the mineral and products made from the mineral as insulation for refrigerated cars, pipes, and boxcars, and to line the boilers and fireboxes of the steam locomotives. As the railroad industry grew, so did the demand for asbestos.

Most ships at the time, like the trains, were powered by steam. Ship builders, like the railroad engineers before them, found many uses for the miracle mineral. They used it to insulate the boilers, pipes, and incinerators aboard the ships.

Shortly after the turn of the century, the automobile began to be mass produced, and a whole new market opened up for asbestos products. Auto manufacturers used the substance in the production of car parts, including brake pads, brake shoes, and clutch plates.

Materials containing asbestos were also used in home construction. It was considered a safe, durable, fire-proof medium and was used in a host of products, including asbestos tile, insulation, bricks, siding, ceiling tiles, stucco, asbestos cement, and roofing shingles. And since it was fire-retardant, it was the preferred fabric for large drapes in schools, theaters, office buildings, and auditoriums.

As the U.S. geared up for World War II, war ships began being produced at breakneck speed. Enter asbestos, the miracle material. Millions of pounds of asbestos were used by shipyards alone during World War II, ultimately affecting hundreds of thousands of workers and their families.

In the decades between the war and the seventies, asbestos could be found almost everywhere in America, in thousands of products. Some of these included toasters, irons, ironing board covers, electric blankets, auto parts, joint compound, fertilizer, rain gutters, and potting soils. It seemed that no one could escape coming in contact with the crystalline mineral – small amounts of it were even used in facial powders and cosmetics. And, of course, many homes had asbestos insulation, asbestos plaster, asbestos ceiling tiles, asbestos floor tiles or asbestos linoleum, asbestos pipes, and asbestos siding. Topping everything off were the asbestos shingles. They were, in essence, asbestos homes.

Asbestos and mesothelioma: A deadly endowment

The ancient Greek and Roman elders recognized the inherent asbestos dangers. Both Strabo and Pliny the Elder noticed that the slaves responsible for weaving cloth from asbestos fibers often had lung diseases and particularly short life spans. In the late nineteenth century, factory inspectors in France and Britain blamed the untimely deaths of workers on asbestos-induced lung ailments.

It was not until 1906, however, that a documented death was directly attributed to asbestos dust. After completing a post-mortem examination on an asbestos factory worker, a London physician discovered asbestos particles in the lungs of the young man. After that, more asbestos-related deaths and illnesses were identified. Life insurance companies took notice, decreasing benefits for those who worked with the toxic substance, while increasing premiums.

One group, however, who did not take notice were the factory owners. Many were aware of the dangerous asbestos information, but few took any measures to protect workers. And it wasn’t just the workers who were affected. They would return home from their jobs with the dangerous particles on their clothing, unwittingly subjecting their families to asbestos.

Finally, in the mid-1970s, asbestos regulations were put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Of course, this was far too late for many victims who had already developed mesothelioma or had already died as a result. The EPA asbestos restrictions were about 100 years too slow.

Asbestos and mesothelioma today

Today, doctors know that exposure to asbestos is the only known cause for a serious cancer called mesothelioma, or sometimes, asbestos cancer. Mesothelioma can attack the lungs, the heart, or the abdomen. When it affects the lungs, it's often called asbestos lung.There is no cure for the disease, and it can take decades after being exposed to asbestos before showing any symptoms. When symptoms do appear, the cancer is usually advanced – in stage III or stage IV.

Many lawsuits have been filed by asbestos lawyers - attorneys who specialize specifically in asbestos law - on behalf of their clients, and some have been awarded large settlements, especially when negligence could be shown.

So is the world safe from asbestos now? Is there a complete asbestos ban? Amazingly, no. For one thing, it’s still found sometimes in older buildings, which is especially dangerous because much of the old asbestos crumbles easily, releasing particles and dust into the air.

In America, asbestos is still used in the production of roof shingles, automobile brake parts, water pipes, floor tiles, elevator brakes, and electrical wire insulation. And because of its fire-retardant properties, it’s still used in the manufacture of protective aprons and gloves. Products made today in the U.S. with asbestos, however, are considered safe because the amounts used are so small. Also, in many of these products, the asbestos companies have contained the harmful mineral so that no dust or particles can escape, referred to as asbestos encapsulation.

In addition, asbestos occurs naturally in many areas. According to the EPA, more than 75% of the water systems in the U.S. contain asbestos. The average outside air in the U.S. has a measurable concentration of asbestos particles, too.

So should the average citizen worry about asbestos hazards and developing mesothelioma? No. the tiny amount of asbestos found in the air and in the drinking water have not been found to cause mesothelioma or any other related disease. People at risk for mesothelioma are those who were exposed to large amounts of asbestos for extended periods of time.

While the U.S. is safe for the most part, however, other nations might not be. Asbestos is still being mined in some nations, and products containing large amounts of the mineral are still being produced in some countries. Many of these products are sold and shipped to third-world countries because of their affordability. But what price can be placed on human lives?

To learn more about mesothelioma, click the article link below.


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    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Thanks for reading!

    • profile image

      ANNU76 7 years ago

      It is very useful for maintenance workers country like UK & Australia have highest rate deadly lung cancer in world caused by Asbestos.

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Funny, De greek! Glad you stopped by - always good to see ya!

    • De Greek profile image

      De Greek 7 years ago from UK

      Now THIS is my true Habee in action! :-)) Really interesting staff, girl, thank you! :D

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Thanks for reading my mesothelioma hub, Elf!

    • elf_cash profile image

      elf_cash 7 years ago

      Mesothelioma is a terrible disease. Excellent research on asbestos.