History of Asbestos
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral of which there are large deposits on every continent. Due to the relatively recent appearance of asbestos-related lung cancer, such as asbestosis and malignant mesothelioma, it is commonly thought that asbestos manufacturing and use is a modern phenomenon. But the usefulness of asbestos for insulation, as a fire retardant and for its tensile strength, has been known for almost 6,000 years. As early as 4000 BC, it is documented that asbestos was used for candle and lamp wicks. The term "asbestos" was coined, meaning inextinguishable or unquenchable.
From 4000 BC to the early 1800s, asbestos was used for a wide variety of purposes, but mostly in small quantities. These uses included cloth, wicks and paper. Marco Polo visited an asbestos mine as early as the 13th century.
In the early 1800s, a number of patents started to appear for various uses of asbestos, including the first known United States patent for asbestos insulating material. This material was used to insulate steam engines being used to spearhead the transportation and manufacturing industries during the industrial revolution. Also in the early 1800s asbestos was first discovered in Canada (the Thedford mines of Quebec) and in South Africa (the Woolstone mines of Orange). By the 1860s asbestos became an industry, with the Italian asbestos industry based on tremolite and the Canadian and Russian industries based on chrysotile. The American industry got its start about 1880, but at that time the industry was based on the use of Italian asbestos to produce paper and board products.
An explosion of new uses rapidly emerged, with the first asbestos brake linings being manufactured in England in 1896 and with the first patent in Germany for the manufacture of asbestos cement in 1899. Also during this time period the first reports of the health hazards of asbestos emerged from Italy and England.
But the momentum for asbestos use to fuel industry did not stop with these early health warnings. In 1906, the first asbestos brake linings were manufactured in the United States, and many other countries started mining asbestos, including Finland. By the 1920s and 1930s, asbestos brake linings were being manufactured in virtually every country with an automobile industry, and many pipes and corrugated sheet were made of asbestos.
In 1930, the health warnings were raised again, with the asbestos industry in the United Kingdom passing regulations to protect the asbestos workers from the dangers. But the war came, and many post-war construction projects relied on asbestos. By 1960, the health concerns related to asbestos were widely known, even though the first reports of asbestos-related dangers had appeared almost 60 years earlier. The most recent high-profile use of asbestos has been to insulate the boosters of the Space Shuttle. Most asbestos mines have been closed for many years, and few materials include asbestos fibers.
The wide use of asbestos from 1930 to 1970 makes it possible that many persons throughout the United States were exposed to this material, either in an asbestos-related job or through environmental exposure. If you or a loved one have been exposed to asbestos, it is best to inform your physician during routine examination. This exposure should be included in your health history.
Continued: Asbestos Mining in Libby, Montana
[Page updated November 2005]