History of Asbestos

Asbestos is a mineral that naturally occurs in deposits all over the world. Its unique chemical properties 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, awareness was growing about the dangers of this miracle product.

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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

Did You Know?

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.

Asbestos Properties

Asbestos was so useful because it was incredibly strong and resisted many elements well. It is so strong because of its natural composition.

Asbestos is a silicate crystal found close to the earth’s surface. It is made up of long, thin fibers that are between 5:1 and 20:1 length-to-diameter ratios.

These fibers are extremely durable and resistant to wear.

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 don’t rust or corrode when placed in wet and moist conditions. Asbestos pipes placed underground do not interact 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 weigh far less compared to other metals like steel, iron, and even aluminum.
  • Flexible: While asbestos fibers are exceedingly strong for their size, they are far from rigid. Asbestos fibers bend, twist, and turn while maintaining their strength and without giving up other properties. Its flexibility made asbestos the perfect coating for wires, pipes, and protective clothing.
  • Durable: Product manufacturers depended on asbestos for durability and longevity. Asbestos fibers do not break down, even when exposed to corrosive ultraviolet rays and acids.
  • Readily Available: Asbestos is commonly found in deposits around the world. Most asbestos mines were open pit operations, which made accessing the ore easy.
  • Economical: One of the best benefits for asbestos producers was the price. Because asbestos is common and lightweight, its mining and shipping costs are low. The savings were 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, the health risks were overwhelming and became worse with extended asbestos exposure.

Asbestos Types

Many people mistakenly lump all asbestos materials into one category. However, researchers have identified two 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

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.

Chrysotile asbestos fibers are 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.

Because of its flexibility and supposed safety, most manufacturers relied on chrysotile asbestos in their products. Up to 95% of all ACM products contained chrysotile asbestos fibers.

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 highly dangerous amphibole fibers.

However, while chrysotile is nowhere near as deadly as its cousins in the amphibole asbestos classification, it can still lead to mesothelioma and other diseases.

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. re the most common amphiboles. They usually display blue hues but range from lavender to green in color.
  2. Amosite fibers were abundant, but not often used in building products. Most amosite raw materials are called “brown” asbestos.
  3. Tremolite fibers, used for making pipes, have a greenish tinge.
  4. Actinolite fibers weren’t used in abundance because they were harder to find. Manufacturers relied on other types of asbestos.
  5. Anthophyllite fibers are also uncommon. They seldom showed up in asbestos-containing materials except when it was cheaper to rely on these fibers.

Products With Asbestos-Containing Materials

Asbestos-based product production took off with the advent of steam power. 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 and stabilizing many different buildings and vehicles.

High-temperature inventions powered by steam first used asbestos materials to prevent 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 the 1930s to the early 1980s 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 as well.

Asbestos material manufacturers and producers included:

  • Automotive sectors, which used asbestos brakes and clutches
  • Shipbuilders, which used asbestos materials around boilers and pipes
  • Power plant generators, which used asbestos to insulate high-heat equipment
  • Oil refineries and chemical factories used asbestos to fireproof products
  • Aircraft and aerospace builders implemented asbestos-based protection systems
  • Mining operations used machinery that contained asbestos

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

History shows there is no such thing as safe asbestos exposure, no matter what type of asbestos was used. Medical authorities agree asbestos is the sole cause of mesothelioma.

Health Risks From Asbestos Exposure

Although asbestos materials were mostly phased out in the 1980s, the long-term health effects of asbestos exposure still affect thousands of people each year.

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 exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma. When workers inhaled asbestos fibers, these tiny particles get stuck inside their bodies.

It’s impossible to exhale asbestos fibers, and they don’t break down like organic impurities. The fibers do not break down over time and cause long-term irritation within the body.

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 greater odds 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.

Mesothelioma Support Team
Stephanie KiddWritten by:


Stephanie Kidd grew up in a family of civil servants, blue-collar workers, and medical caregivers. Upon graduating Summa Cum Laude from Stetson University, she began her career specializing in worker safety regulations and communications. Now, a proud member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) and Editor-in-Chief of the Mesothelioma Cancer Network, Stephanie serves as a voice for mesothelioma victims and their families.

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