Asbestos is a natural mineral that has many benefits. We now know, however, that it is also highly carcinogenic and therefore not the ‘miracle mineral’ it was long believed to be. Nevertheless, it is certainly true that it is both fire and heat-resistant. In fact, that is where the word ‘asbestos’ comes from, as it means ‘inextinguishable’ in Ancient Greek. Greece is also the location of the first asbestos mine, which was found on Evvoia.

“The first quarries of asbestos likely came from the Greek island of Evvoia. At first, it was assumed Greeks wove asbestos into the clothing of their slaves, but once its extraordinary properties of fire resistance were discovered, the asbestos was incorporated into clothing for kings and queens, napkins and table clothes and as insulation in buildings and ovens. Asbestos was even incorporated into the wicks of the ‘eternal’ flames of vestal virgins.”

A Brief History of Asbestos and Its Dangers

Hundreds of years ago, people already knew how beneficial asbestos was. It has been used in building materials dating back as far as the Roman Empire. Additionally, it was used to create a range of textiles in both the Roman and Egyptian civilizations.

The fact that asbestos causes problems with the lungs has been known for just as long. In ancient civilizations, asbestos miners and textile spinners and weavers would often develop lung sickness. Their life expectancy, therefore, was also greatly reduced.

Yet, the use of the material continued regardless and when the Industrial Revolution happened, its use truly boomed. This was when it was hailed as the ‘miracle mineral’. By the end of the 19th century, asbestos was found pretty much everywhere.

“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.”

The mineral was used in factories, shipyards, railroad carts, chemical refineries, and oil refineries. It was used to insulate the boilers and pipes in locomotives. Refinery ovens and tanks were lined with it. Thousands upon thousands of people were exposed to it day after day, and they suddenly started to develop the same lung problems as the ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian slaves.

Despite all these construction, railroad, shipping, and refinery workers dying young from similar conditions, asbestos use continued to grow. By the 20th century, it was used in the clutches and brakes of vehicles, in insulation in the skyscrapers, in roof shingles, cement, ceiling and floor tiles, plaster, stucco, siding, and so on. And again, people started to develop health problems. Those who worked with the materials between 1940 and 1970 seemed to be at particular risk, developing mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer.

What we now know is that businesses, manufacturers, and even the government were aware of the risks, but that they kept these quiet.

“Asbestos companies hid the danger for decades. Internal documents reveal that the asbestos industry knew long ago that its products were killing people. It did nothing.”

It wasn’t until thousands of people started to become sick at the same time that the government had to step in, imposing laws on asbestos use. This didn’t happen until the 1970s. In fact, asbestos use was never completely banned.

Asbestos Use Today

Unfortunately, the reality is that asbestos misuse is continuing. It is simply such a fantastic mineral that companies try to figure out ways to still use it. However, there simply is no way to use asbestos in a safe manner. In 2015, five operators and managers of A&E Salvage were sentenced to between six months and five years in prison. This was for criminally conspiring to expose workers to asbestos, thereby violating the Clean Air Act, which is a federal legislation. They were also fined a total of $10.4 million. The company had been awarded a contract to remove Liberty Fibers Plant asbestos in Hamblen County, TN, but they did not provide their workers with the personal protective equipment that they required to do the job.

To this day, asbestos is still mined. This is the chrysotile form, also known as ‘white’ asbestos. It is also still exported and transported around the globe. Only around 40 countries in the world have now truly banned asbestos, knowing just how toxic it is. On the positive side, incidents of asbestos and mesothelioma are now dropping. There had been huge surge between 1980 and 2000, due to those who had been exposed between the 1940s and 1970s developing mesothelioma. This has now dropped significantly, but it hasn’t ceased to exist, and exposure, accidental or on purpose, continues to happen to this day. Clearly, more work remains to be done.