A textile worker works in a textile mill. Jobs within the mills can include processing raw material into yarn that can then be woven into cloth. Asbestos is the only natural mineral that is composed of fibers that can be woven into cloth. Although there are several different types of asbestos, most textiles made from asbestos use the longest fibers from the chrysotile form of asbestos. The process requires that the fibers be separated, carded, spun into yarn, and finally woven into cloth.
Until the mid-1970s there were a lot of mills around the United States that produced textiles made partially or entirely from asbestos. Some of the mills were closed in the 1970s because they were too contaminated to keep open, but others tried to retrofit and remodel to remove the asbestos contamination. One mill in South Carolina was abandoned in the late 1970s, but demolition and cleanup there didn’t occur up until 2004.
A study done in England showed that people who worked in the asbestos textile mills had 300 times more asbestos in their lungs than the general population. Medical experts agree that asbestos is a carcinogen, and that any exposure to a carcinogen increases the likelihood the exposed person will ultimately develop cancer, such as the deadly asbestos cancer mesothelioma. One asbestos mill in England had one out of twelve employees develop some sort of asbestos disease. Other studies have shown that about two percent of all textile workers who work with asbestos develop mesothelioma.
Asbestos was used so extensively because it is lightweight, is chemically inert and entirely resistant to fire, and effectively insulates against both electricity and heat. These properties have made it popular for centuries. There are records of the Greeks using asbestos cloth for clothing, napkins, and tablecloths that could be cleaned by throwing them in the fire. Asbestos mining and production started in the United States in the early 1900s and was used increasingly up until about 1970.
Despite its popularity the dangers of asbestos were not hidden. The Greeks knew that slaves who worked with asbestos had lung problems and tended to die early. Studies were done in the United States and Great Britain in the early 1900s. There was even some legislation regarding asbestos by the 1930s, but the government and industry chose to ignore those regulations.
The danger from asbestos comes any time the fibers are disturbed. Obviously the work done in textile mills created a lot of disturbance to the fibers that then sloughed off asbestos dust that textile workers could inhale.
Asbestos causes a number of different illnesses, but the most serious among them is malignant mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a rare cancer of the membrane that surrounds the lungs and lines the chest and abdominal cavity. Mesothelioma has an extended latency period of 15 to 40 years before the disease begins to manifest itself. The first symptom, shortness of breath during exercise, is usually ignored or not noticed by people who have it. As the disease progresses the difficulty in breathing becomes more pronounced and is associated with increasingly severe chest pain. If it is caught before it metastasizes, the tumor can sometimes be surgically removed. If the cancer has already spread, however, surgery is less effective. At that point doctors rely on a combination of chemotherapy and radiation, sometimes in conjunction with surgery, to try to slow the cancer’s growth. Mesothelioma is very resistant to most anti-cancer drugs, however, and there is no cure. Few people live more than two years after being diagnosed with mesothelioma.