A blacksmith is a person who forges, or shapes, metal by first heating it until it is red-hot, then uses tools like chisels and hammers to force the metal into the shape he desires. Historically, the blacksmith was the only person who worked with metal. That is no longer true, and in the modern world most blacksmiths are artists rather than industrialists. The blacksmith works with either wrought iron or steel. Wrought iron is no longer produced, so any new wrought iron pieces have to be made with recycled wrought iron.
Obviously blacksmiths deal with extremely hot objects and face a constant worry about fire and heat. A lot of blacksmiths dealt with this problem by using asbestos in several different forms. First, asbestos insulation between the forge and the wall protected the wall from both heat and the potential for fire. Second, items dropped on a wooden floor could potentially cause a fire as well. Therefore asbestos floor tiles, or simply asbestos sheets on the floor of a blacksmith shop, would prevent floor fires. Third, when heating large pieces of metal to be forged, the process would go more quickly if the forge had a covering that could hold in the heat. Asbestos made perfect sense for this use as well. Not only did it hold the heat in the forge making it hotter, but it also kept the room cooler–all while preventing sparks that could potentially be a fire hazard. Finally, although most blacksmiths wore leather aprons to protect them from sparks and heat, asbestos gloves and clothing used to be readily available, and can still be found new in some parts of the world, and used even in the United States.
The use of asbestos in these ways and others caused blacksmiths to be exposed to tiny airborne particles of asbestos that flaked off the asbestos panels, or other asbestos items they worked with. When asbestos flakes off and is inhaled, the asbestos dust makes its way into the person’s lungs where it can cause any number of asbestos related diseases, such as asbestosis, pleural plaques, or even one of several forms of asbestos cancer including lung cancer or mesothelioma. It can also get on the person’s hair, clothing, or shoes and be transported home. Thus family members may also be at risk of asbestos exposure even if they don’t work in the blacksmith shop themselves. Once in the lungs it is an irritant that causes tissue irritation and eventually scarring. Additionally, asbestos is a carcinogen that can cause cancer.
One of the most deadly forms of asbestos cancer is called malignant mesothelioma. This cancer forms on the tissue surrounding the lungs or other organs of the body. If it is caught in its earliest stages, doctors can sometimes successfully remove the tumor before it spreads, or metastasizes. Once the cancer has spread, there is no cure. At that point doctors can only try to slow its growth and treat the symptoms of the cancer with radiation or chemotherapy. Like all forms of asbestos disease, mesothelioma takes many years, usually several decades, to manifest. In its early stages, malignant mesothelioma is mostly symptom free. As symptoms do show up, they are usually mild and can be explained by a lot of things less threatening than cancer. Shortness of breath when exercising for instance can be written off as a natural part of getting older, or maybe having a cold. By the time symptoms are severe enough that people seek medical attention, it is frequently too late to surgically remove the tumor. Mesothelioma that has spread does not respond well to the drugs doctors currently have available, and as such the survival rate for two years or more is very small. Fortunately new developments are improving the odds, but asbestos cancer is still a devastating problem.