A tinsmith is a person who works with lightweight metal, tin, to form everything from cookie cutters to roofing shingles. Tin is rarely used in its pure form because it is too soft, but bound with other metals it is very useful. For example, when mixed with copper, tin forms bronze. Unlike many types of metal, tin does not rust, so putting a tin outer layer with other stronger metals as an inner layer provides a strong and durable product In the past, tin was commonly lined with asbestos to make insulated boxes and other containers and roofing products. Tin pipes were occasionally used as well, and they too were insulated with asbestos. Tin mills were frequently associated with steel mills, which were well known for their large amounts of asbestos.
As a result of all of these factors, and the fact that up until the 1970s asbestos was used in over 3000 products, many tinsmiths were occupationally exposed to asbestos. Asbestos has been used for many centuries. Pottery with asbestos fibers added to it dated back to 3000 BC has been found in Scandinavia. Records show that the Egyptians wrapped the bodies of dead pharaohs in asbestos cloth. Ancient Greeks and Romans used asbestos cloth to make napkins, tablecloths, and clothing, because throwing them in the fire could clean them. Knights during the Middle Ages lined their suits of armor with asbestos to help control the heat.
Asbestos is the only natural mineral that can be woven into cloth. The fibers are lightweight and flexible. Additionally, asbestos is entirely fireproof and chemically inert, and provides effective insulation against noise, electricity, and heat. Unfortunately, the many good qualities of asbestos are offset by its dangers. The Greeks noticed that slaves who worked with asbestos seemed to have trouble breathing and tended to die younger than other slaves. Studies done in the United States and Great Britain confirmed this knowledge at about the same time asbestos production was getting its start in the United States. By 1924, doctors had diagnosed asbestosis and by the 1930s doctors were writing articles for medical journals about the link between asbestos and cancer.
All the studies and warnings went unheeded, while asbestos use continued to grow up until the early 1970s. At its peak of popularity asbestos was found in everything from roofing products to toasters. People who worked with asbestos were unaware of the dangers, and the people who were aware of the problems didn’t inform the public.
Asbestos disease is caused when a person inhales microscopic asbestos dust. The dust is released whenever asbestos fibers are manipulated or damaged in any way. The dust gets imbedded in the person’s lungs or the tissue surrounding the lungs and creates irritation. Eventually this irritation leads to scarring and difficulty breathing. Asbestos is also a carcinogen. The worst of the many forms of cancer associated with asbestos is mesothelioma. Malignant mesothelioma is cancer of the membrane surrounding the lungs and lining the chest and abdominal cavity in its most common form, known as pleural mesothelioma. It can also affect the lining of the stomach and the heart in rarer forms. Like most asbestos-related diseases it has a long latency period. Mesothelioma can take 30 or more years after exposure before it develops.
In its early stages mesothelioma only causes mild difficulty in breathing after exercise. This symptom is generally not noticed or is ignored as not being serious. As the disease progresses, breathing becomes more difficult and is associated with increasingly severe chest pain. Surgical removal of the tumor can be an effective treatment if the cancer has not spread. If the cancer has spread, chemotherapy and radiation may be used to slow its growth, but there is no cure.