The History of Asbestos
Researchers believe the history of asbestos begins when it was first discovered in a Greek quarry around 4500 years ago. Asbestos fibers were combed and spun into fire-resistant textiles such as cloaks, tablecloths, handkerchiefs, and theater curtains.
The first use of the mineral’s name was “amiantus,” which is a Greek word that means “resistance to fire.” Ancient asbestos was also found in Finland where it was used to strengthen clay pottery. Other early uses of the mineral were found in lamp wicks, napkins, and crematory shrouds. The mineral was often represented in writing by notable people, such as Marco Polo.
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From 1660 to 1700 the Royal Society of England, the oldest national scientific institution in the world published a series of eight reviews and letters on the history of asbestos. The publication of the writing led to an increase of the mineral’s application into products like coats, shirts, and sleeve ruffles. During this era, gold appeared on asbestos paper.
Properties of the mineral were often exploited when false asbestos-woven artifacts were sold between the 1700s and 1800s. During this period of time, asbestos gloves and capes were used in fiery shows in the attempt to bewilder audiences.
In the early 1800s, the modern asbestos industry began when workers in Italy created a textile manufacturing company, which would soon be the world’s primary supplier. Mass production began, creating products like string, and book covers made of the mineral.
Around this time, industrialized production of the mineral influenced new uses such as insulation for boilers and steam pipes, and fireproof paint. Firefighters began wearing fireproof clothing made out of the mineral.
In 1907, a new technology called the Hatschek was invented to enable the mass production of fireproof building materials. Production and consumption declined through World War I and the Great Depression of the 1930s. After these events, production and consumption increased.
Mass production of asbestos-cement pipes began in 1929 and enabled the widespread use of water supply and waste lines. The automobile industry began integrating the mineral into brakes, clutch components, and engine gaskets.
History of Use in the U.S. Industry
By 1910, the United States was the leading consumer of the toxic mineral in the world. Around 43 percent of production was consumed in the U.S. Millboard and paper for electrical panels, insulation for electrical wiring, and spray-on asbestos products were some of the materials in high demand.
In 1918, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report highlighting the high risk of early death among workers who worked with the mineral. However, the asbestos industry was still relatively new and rapidly expanding. A large increase in immigration created a substantial need for housing, public buildings, and roads, influencing new opportunities for the industry.
During World War II, much of the world was forced to decrease production of the carcinogen. Following the war, Canada, South Africa, and the United States increased production to make up for production loss during the reconstruction of Europe and parts of Asia. The increase in asbestos production meant the workers were exposed to substantial amounts of the mineral.
By the late 1950s, asbestos was considered a “service to humanity” because of its numerous uses. From the 1920s to the 1960s, the United States accounted for up to 83 percent of consumption.
Peak production occurred in the mid-1970s when nearly 25 countries were producing the material, and 85 countries were manufacturing contaminated products. In the United States, production was recorded in 15 states. The largest producing states in the U.S. were Arizona, California, North Carolina, and Vermont.
After production reached its peak in the United States, consumption rapidly declined. Awareness of asbestos health issues and new research started to affect the market. From 1975 to 1985, U.S. consumption went from 13 percent of world production to just four percent.
Were you or a loved one exposed to asbestos on the job? Determine your risk for asbestos-related disease and your options for treatment.
Discovery of Risks
Known risks of asbestos were discovered when slaves who worked with it started experiencing illnesses related to exposure. However, researchers didn’t understand the health risks until the modern industrialization of the western world.
Growing evidence showed breathing in the mineral’s fibers created scarring of the lungs during the first half of the 20th century. The risk of injury stemmed from inhaling or ingesting the fibers. At this time, there were no regulations or protections against exposure.
Asbestosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling its harmful fibers, was discovered in 1930 by Dr. E.R.A. Merewether. Dr. Merewether released a report proving the link between exposure to asbestos and asbestosis. This report pushed England to take steps in the 1930s to protect workers. Lawmakers passed regulations requiring businesses to install ventilation and exhaust systems in the workplace. The first case of asbestosis was reported in the United States in 1933.
A mesothelioma-like tumor was reported in 1943, and more links between asbestosis and lung cancer were later confirmed in the 1940s. The first reported case of mesothelioma in a worker was recorded in 1953. A major study in 1955 linked asbestos exposure with cancer, making it a carcinogen.
The decline in production and consumption became noticeable in the late 1970s after research lead to concern for related health issues. The health controversy surrounding the mineral and new regulations led to a decline in the asbestos market, which heavily affected the production of asbestos-cement pipe and sheets, coatings, flooring, and insulation.
Producers and manufacturers alike faced an increasing number of class-action lawsuits filed by victims of exposure. Many of these producers and manufacturers were already aware of the risks.
In the early 1970s after employees starting filing lawsuits, companies began listing warnings and regulations on asbestos-laden products. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enacted the Clean Air Act in 1970. The act classified the mineral as a hazardous air pollutant.
The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) further regulated the mineral in 1976, controlling the development, use, and disposal of the substance. An amendment of the TSCA regulated how schools dealt with asbestos exposure.
After more than a century, mining of the mineral ceased in the United States in 2002. The mineral is still imported into the U.S. and is used in some construction materials. Between 1900 and 2003, imports supplied 94 percent of the U.S.’s demands.
Use of the carcinogen is still not fully banned in the United States. While it is heavily regulated, the mineral is still imported and consumed in U.S. markets. Previous attempts to phase out the mineral in the United States have failed, while other countries like Germany, Japan, and the U.K. have joined the global effort to ban the toxin.
The toxic mineral has a long history of influence throughout the world. If you are suffering from a related disease, you may qualify for compensation. Complete a free case evaluation to speak with an experienced attorney.
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