History of Asbestos

Summary

Asbestos is a mineral that naturally occurred on every continent. It's a substance with unique chemical properties that made asbestos fibers one of the most popular manufacturing additives the world has ever seen. Life magazine once called asbestos the "magic material." That was in the 1940s. Even then, rumors started milling about how dangerous this miracle product was.

Asbestos History

Asbestos is a mineral that naturally occurred on every continent. It’s a substance with unique chemical properties that made asbestos fibers one of the most popular manufacturing additives the world has ever seen. In the 1940s, Life magazine called asbestos the “magic material.” Even then, rumors started milling about how dangerous this miracle product was.

History of Asbestos Use

Asbestos had a long history of production and devastation dating back centuries. It was a prominent industrial product throughout the better part of the 20th century.

But by the mid-1980s government regulators like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) took drastic steps to reduce its consumption. They regulated many asbestos-containing materials (ACM) from exposing American workers and consumers from toxic asbestos exposure.

Early Asbestos Use

Humans began using asbestos at least 10,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence supports that clay cooking pots in Scandinavia dated 8,000 B.C. contained asbestos fibers.

These ancient potters realized adding asbestos to clay made their vessels heat-resistant. The Egyptians made asbestos burial shrouds. Romans weaved asbestos fibers into napkins and tablecloths. And middle-age crusaders built asbestos bags to hold flaming tar which they catapulted over fortifications.

The word “asbestos” originates from the Latin word “amiantus” for “unspoiled” and the Greek word “asvestos” meaning “inextinguishable.”

These early alchemists thought they were onto something magical. Mixing asbestos fibers with other materials seemed to improve products in every way. But, there were warnings that asbestos exposure was dangerous. Pliny the Elder, of Rome, observed a “disease of the slaves” in which deaths from lung issues were shockingly high for asbestos workers.

Asbestos Use During the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution drastically increased the demand for raw asbestos materials. Miners moved from using picks and shovels to steam-powered mining equipment. The very process of extracting asbestos ore upped the need for heat-protecting and fireproofing products in mining machines.

From the late-1800s, worldwide demand for ACM exploded. For the next century, millions of tons of asbestos ore became more than 3,000 different manufactured products.

War-Time Asbestos Use

World War II saw the most significant asbestos consumption in America.

The war effort demanded building products be readily available, easy to work with and cheap to buy. Asbestos provided that and more. Building construction and shipbuilding were the most prominent users of asbestos-containing materials. These 2 industries alone consumed over half of the U.S. asbestos production.

Post-War Asbestos Use

The post-war prosperity saw hundreds of new ACM products introduced into American homes, schools, offices and factories.

It also saw the rise of asbestos used in automobiles, airplanes and even air-conditioners. Asbestos was everywhere. It coated electric wires and lined furnaces as well as insulating walls, pipes and electrical wires.

Medical Revelations About Asbestos Use

There were dire warnings about health risks from long-term exposure to asbestos fibers. Physicians and scientists were well aware of what happened when asbestos fibers entered human lungs.

Their early warnings went unheeded as the demand for a universal building product exceeded reasonable caution. Individuals underestimated the red flags about asbestos and ignored and even hid them. Companies put profit over people because asbestos properties were perfect for every product.

Asbestos Properties

Asbestos is a silicate crystal found close to the earth’s surface. Microscopically, asbestos appears as long thin fibers having between 5:1 and 20:1 length-to-diameter ratios. Asbestos fibers are impervious to most of what nature throws at them.

These are the properties making asbestos so attractive for adding to all types of products.

  • Inert: Asbestos fibers are chemically inert. That means they have little or no chemical reaction when blended with other materials. This quality makes ACM stable and seemingly safe to handle.
  • Non-Flammable: Asbestos doesn’t burn or catch fire. Asbestos materials withstand extreme heat and pressure without breaking down. They seemed ideal for high-heat and fire-risk applications.
  • Non-Corrosive: This quality extended from being chemically inert. Asbestos fibers wouldn’t rust or corrode when placed in wet and moist conditions. Asbestos pipes placed underground had no interaction with aggressive soils.
  • Low Thermal Transfer Rate: Asbestos insulation was considered the best material to control heat loss and gain. Red-hot metals placed on asbestos pads failed to scorch substrate materials.
  • Tensile Strength: Asbestos fibers were enormously strong. They had no inertial stretch or snapping failure. Asbestos materials significantly improved tensile strength in every product.
  • Lightweight: Some standard products had their weight cut in half when blended with high ratios of asbestos fiber. Silicate molecules have far less specific gravity compared to other metals like steel, iron and even aluminum.
  • Flexible: While asbestos fibers were exceedingly strong for their size, they were far from rigid. Asbestos fibers could bend, twist and turn while maintaining their strength and without giving up other properties. Flexibility made asbestos the perfect coating for wires, pipes and protective clothing.
  • Durable: Product manufacturers depended on asbestos for durability and longevity. No matter what conditions, asbestos fibers refused to break down. That included exposure to ultraviolet rays as well as acids.
  • Readily Available: Asbestos ore was common. It was widely available in most locations and abundantly present. Most asbestos mines were open pit operations and this made accessing the ore easy.
  • Economical: One of the best benefits for asbestos producers was cost-effectiveness. Because asbestos was common and lightweight, its mining and shipping costs were low. The savings was passed down to the consumer along with all the other great features asbestos appeared to offer.

Asbestos was incredibly popular during the Industrial Age. The miracle material seemed to be almost supernatural. However, health risks were overwhelming and they became worse depending on the type of asbestos exposure.

Asbestos Types

Many people mistakenly lump all asbestos materials into one category. However, researchers have identified 2 broad asbestos groups. The first is serpentine asbestos fibers and the second is amphibole fibers. There’s a distinct difference between them, as well as a marked difference in associated health risks.

Serpentine asbestos fibers appear curly or twisted when viewed under a microscope. This serpent-like appearance gave the material great flexibility. They were easier to blend into products and constituted the majority of ACM used in America.

Chrysotile Asbestos

Chrysotile asbestos fibers were the only ones in the serpentine class. Chrysotile was called “white asbestos” due to its natural grey-white color. It was also called “good asbestos” because many thought chrysotile asbestos was safe to use. That wasn’t true, but chrysotile was nowhere near as deadly as its cousins in the amphibole asbestos classification.

Amphibole Asbestos

Microscopically, amphibole asbestos fibers appear as hard spiky crystals. There was a little twist and bend with amphibole fibers, but that served specific production purposes. Amphibole asbestos was hard and tough. It was great for high-temperature protection and electrical resistance.

Amphibole fibers were subdivided into 5 individual classes:

  1. Crocidolite fibers were the most common amphiboles. They usually displayed blue hues but ranged from lavender to green.
  2. Amosite fibers were abundant but not often used in building products. Most amosite raw materials were called “brown” asbestos.
  3. Tremolite fibers, used for making pipes, had a greenish tinge.
  4. Actinolite fibers weren’t used in abundance. They were rarer to find and it was easier to use more plentiful asbestos materials.
  5. Anthophyllite fibers were also uncommon. They seldom showed up in ACM except where specific locations made using anthophyllite economical.

Up to 95% of all ACM products contained chrysotile asbestos fibers.

That’s because as a serpentine class, chrysotile fibers were universally fit for all but the most heavy-duty applications. Given the historical numbers that over 3,000 different products contained asbestos, this equated to at least 2,850 items having the safer white asbestos in them. That also meant that over 150 products contained the highly dangerous amphibole fibers.

Products With Asbestos-Containing Materials

Asbestos-based product production took off once steam generating capabilities increased. Steam power changed the industrialized world. It made mechanized equipment viable on a commercial scale and was at the heart of manufacturing processes, power generation grids and transportation systems.

Asbestos products were central to insulating, isolating and stabilizing all infrastructure forums.

Steam-powered and other high-temperature inventions first used asbestos materials to prevent injuring workers and causing fires. Once asbestos proved a stable and durable material, it found its way into building construction products. It’s safe to say that most construction materials made from 1920 to 1980 had some asbestos content.

Construction products using the highest asbestos content were:

  • Insulation for building envelopes like floors, walls and ceilings
  • Cement powder in masonry mortar and foundations
  • Drywall board, tape and joint compound
  • Electrical wiring and steam pipe wrappings
  • Floor tiles, roofing shingles and siding components
  • Paint, caulking, sealants and adhesives
  • Furnace liners, ducts and fireplaces

Building construction didn’t lay sole claim to the asbestos market. Commercial and industrial projects consumed immense asbestos quantities.

Asbestos material manufacturers and producers included:

  • Automotive sectors were making asbestos brakes and clutches
  • Shipbuilders were applying asbestos materials around boilers and pipes
  • Power plant generators were insulating hi-heat equipment
  • Oil refineries and chemical factories using fire-proof products
  • Aircraft and aerospace builders were implementing asbestos protection
  • Mining operations including asbestos extracting sites

No matter what industry used asbestos products, every single one placed their workers at serious health risks from asbestos exposure.

History showed there was no such thing as safe asbestos exposure, no matter what classification of asbestos—chrysotile or amphibole. History also showed that asbestos exposure was the sole cause of the deadly cancer disease called mesothelioma.

Health Risks From Asbestos Exposure

Although American asbestos materials phased out in the 1980s, the long-term health exposure from asbestos exposure continued to this day. Many people exposed to asbestos decades ago are only now beginning to show symptoms of mesothelioma, and much more will be diagnosed in the upcoming months and years.

Asbestos particle exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma. When workers inhaled asbestos fibers, these tiny particles impaled their lung lining—the pleura. It’s impossible to exhale asbestos fibers, and they don’t break down like organic impurities. These nasty shards permanently stay in the pleura. Eventually, they form scar tissue that triggers cancer cells that grow and divide uncontrollably.

Compensation for Mesothelioma Victims

While there’s still no known cure for mesothelioma, significant medical advancements have been made throughout the history of mesothelioma research. Today, mesothelioma patients have a greater shot at longer-term survival thanks to mesothelioma specialists and the ability for experts to develop personalized treatment plans.

Mesothelioma patients may be entitled to compensation to cover personal damages, lost wages, and most importantly, treatment costs. Retaining a specialized lawyer can help you and your loved ones determine how you were exposed to asbestos, which resulted in your diagnosis.

For more information, contact our Justice Support Team today.