History of Asbestos Use
Asbestos had a long history of production and devastation dating back centuries. It was a widely used industrial product throughout the better part of the 20th century.
However, 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 to protect American workers and consumers from asbestos exposure.
Today, the use of asbestos is restricted but not entirely banned. Additionally, products and buildings that were built with asbestos decades ago may still put people at risk of exposure today.
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.
Later, Crusaders in the Middle Ages built asbestos bags to hold flaming tar, which they catapulted over fortress walls
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. Despite this, there were already 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 switched from 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 asbestos-based products 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. Construction and shipbuilding were the most prominent users of asbestos-containing materials, contributing to over half of U.S. asbestos production.
Post-War Asbestos Use
The post-war prosperity introduced hundreds of new asbestos products into American homes, schools, offices, and factories.
It also saw the rise of asbestos used in cars, airplanes, and even air conditioners. Asbestos was everywhere. It coated electric wires, lined furnaces, and insulated walls and pipe systems.
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 happens when asbestos fibers enter human lungs.
However, their early warnings went unheeded. Manufacturers of asbestos products ignored and even hid the scientific findings for decades, as the demand for their products was at an all-time high. These companies put profit over people because asbestos was perfect for hundreds of products.