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History of Asbestos

Asbestos is not a miracle of modern times but rather a mineral that has been in use for centuries and has long been recognized for its useful properties, such as the ability to resist heat and provide insulation.

In fact, the word “asbestos” dates back to ancient Greece and is thought to have derived from a Greek word meaning indestructible or inextinguishable. The first asbestos quarry was believed to have been located on the Greek isle of Evvoia as early as the first century A.D.

Written information documents the use of asbestos as early as during the years of the Roman Empire, though many experts indicate that it may have been used long before that - perhaps as early as 3000 B.C. - as is evidenced by archaeological digs in areas of Scandinavia where asbestos was found in pottery and similar objects.

Early society found many uses for asbestos, thanks to what they often referred to as its “miraculous” qualities. Building materials usually contained asbestos as did cloth and women’s clothing. There is documentation that Romans used tablecloths made of asbestos in their restaurants and homes, due to the fact that they could be thrown into the fire in order to remove food and other crumbs or debris that may have adhered to the cloth. When they were removed, of course, the tablecloths were unscathed and rumored to be whiter than ever!

History shows that the ancient Egyptians embalmed their pharaohs with asbestos and other civilizations wrapped or “mummified” their dead in materials that contained this substance. Later, it was used to insulate suits of armor. At one point, asbestos was made into crosses and due to its weathered, wood-like appearance, many deceived the public by stating that the crosses were made from the wood of the cross on which Christ was crucified.

The Industrial Revolution brought about even more widespread use of asbestos. In the late 1800s, in the early years of commercial asbestos mines, the U.S. found that the mineral was perfect for insulating pipes, boilers, and fireboxes in steam locomotives, a burgeoning mode of transportation in North America. Refrigeration units, boxcars, and cabooses were also lined with asbestos insulation and the use of the material continued even after diesel railroads were introduced.

Trains weren’t the only form of transportation that made use of this incredible insulating material. Shipyards were full of asbestos and shipbuilders used the mineral to insulate steam pipes, boilers, hot water pipes, and incinerators, not unlike the railroad industry. Many who built ships, especially during World War II, were exposed to this dangerous material.

The automotive industry made extensive use of asbestos as well. Clutch and brake linings usually contained asbestos and many cars on the road today still contain parts made with this dangerous substance.

The industry that boasted the most widespread use of asbestos was, by far, the building and construction industry. Its insulating and flame-retardant properties made asbestos the perfect material for keeping buildings warm and safe. Not only was asbestos used for insulation in walls but also in such materials as siding, floor and ceiling tiles, roofing tars and shingles, cement pipes, gutters and rainwater pipes, mud and texture coats like stucco, plaster, putty, caulk, and even stage curtains in theaters and schools.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that, in all, as many as 3,000 products may, at one time or another, have contained asbestos, including a number of household items that would otherwise seem innocuous, such as hand-held hairdryers, coffee pots, toasters, irons, ironing board covers, electric blankets, and burner pads.

Because asbestos is often found in mined talc and vermiculite, products containing those two substances may contain asbestos as well. Talc-containing products might include cosmetics, baby powder, and feminine hygiene products. Trace amounts of asbestos have also been found in fertilizers, pesticides, potting mixes, and composts, which often employ the use of vermiculite, due to its drainage and aeration properties.

Sadly, the recognition of the dangerous properties of asbestos goes back to the Roman Empire when concerned citizens and doctors noticed that those who worked in asbestos mines were dying very early or becoming quite ill with lung-related diseases. Records show that by the turn of the 20th century, insurance companies were already charging higher premiums or refusing coverage to those who had jobs that exposed them to asbestos.

It wasn’t until the 1970s, unfortunately, that government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began to regulate asbestos and its uses. By that time, many had been exposed to asbestos and asbestos-containing products for a vast number of years.

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