History of Abestos

Asbestos is a highly versatile, strong, cheap, non-flammable malleable substance that has been used in building, textiles and construction for the last 2000 years.  Asbestos is also a highly toxic airborne fibrous substance that causes a number of different incurable cancers in the humans that are exposed to it.  Asbestos is in many homes around the world and is still being used.

Asbestos became popular in the building industry for its natural properties and affordability – desirable physical properties:[1]sound absorption, average tensile strength, its resistance to fire, heat, electrical and chemical damage.  When asbestos is used for its resistance to fire or heat, the fibers are often mixed with cement or woven into fabric or mats. These desirable properties made asbestos a very widely used material, and its use continued to grow throughout most of the 20th century until the carcinogenic (cancer-causing) effects of asbestos dust caused its effective demise as a mainstream construction and fireproofing material in most countries

So how did Asbestos become so wide spread?  Where did it come from and how to we rid ourselves of the asbestos that is in more than a 3rd of the homes around the world?

Asbestos is a Naturally Occurring Mineral

Asbestos is mined straight from the ground.  It is a naturally occurring mineral that can be dug out of the earths surface, with Russia as the greatest supplier or Asbestos.  There are six different types of Asbestos, defined mostly by their colour.

Asbestos is minded from an open pit and looks a lot like wood in it’s raw form.  After it is separated from the earth and other matter, the asbestos is processed and refined into fluffy fibres.  These fibres are then mixed with a binding agent a lot like cement.  Sheets and pipes made from Asbestos are not 100 percent asbestos but simply a product that contains asbestos.

Asbestos in Ancient Times

Asbestos has been mined and used for over 4 000 years, however it was not mined on a large scale until the 19th century when it started to be used in housing.  Health issues related to asbestos exposure can be found in records dating back to Roman times.

The word asbestos comes from the ancient Greek, meaning “unquenchable” or “inextinguishable”.  Pliny (the younger) make reference to clothes being made of asbestinon in his earliest journals.  He states, ‘it is rare and impressive and sold for the same price and the finest pearls.’  He makes note of people cleaning their napkins by setting them on fire.  He also makes note of a sickness in the asbestos miners, but there are few details relating to this.

Toxicity

Pliny the Younger wrote in AD 61-114 that slaves who worked with the mineral asbestos became ill, there seems to be no exact reference that can be found.  Word of mouth only.

For a long time the damaging effects of Asbestos fibres to people, it was not until 1924 that the very first case of asbestosis was diagnosed.  Asbestosis would later be called Mesothelioma as the cancer that asbestos causes effects the mesothelial cells.

Asbestos and the Industrial Revolution

Asbestos regained significant popularity as the world, specifically Great Britain, entered the Industrial Revolution.  As powered machinery and steam power became more and more prevalent, so did the need for an efficient and effect way to control the heat needed to create and power the machines at the centre of the paradigm shift.  Asbestos served as a perfect insulator for high-temperature products like steam pipes, turbines, ovens, and kilns; all things that helped facilitate the Industrial Revolution.

The increase in demand for asbestos sparked the first commercial asbestos mines to open in 1879 in Quebec providence of Canada.  Mines opened shortly thereafter in Russia, Australia, and South Africa.  By 1900, doctors started reporting lung sickness and pulmonary fibrosis in patients who had worked in asbestos textile factories and asbestos mines.

Despite the resurgence of health concerns, asbestos became very important in the United States as the railroad infrastructure was put into place.  Asbestos has become an important solution to prevent heat build up and temperature fluctuation in steam powered trains, and again when the steam powered trains shifted to diesel power.  By WWII, asbestos was being used in the shipping industry (as insulation to components subjected to high heat), the automobile industry (as brake and clutch lining), and in the construction industry (in a wide variety of products included insulation, siding, and cement).

Asbestos and the Industrial Revolution

During the industrial revolution asbestos rose in popularity because of it’s amazing ability to control heat.  Asbestos served as a perfect insulator for high-temperature products like steam pipes, turbines, ovens, and kilns; all things that helped facilitate the Industrial Revolution and the industrialisation of production and manufacture.

The increase in demand for asbestos sparked the first commercial asbestos mines to open in 1879 in Quebec providence of Canada.  It was not long after this mine opened that others were established in Russia, Australia, and South Africa.  By 1900, doctors started reporting lung sickness and pulmonary fibrosis in patients who had worked in asbestos textile factories and asbestos mines.

Despite the resurgence of health concerns, asbestos became very important in the United States as the railroad infrastructure was put into place.  wether the toxic risk of Asbestos was underestimated, ignored or hidden, asbestos played a huge part in the production and building of railway lines all over the world.

By WWII, asbestos was being used in the shipping industry, the automobile industry (as brake and clutch lining), and in the construction industry (in a wide variety of products included insulation, siding, and cement).

Mesothelioma and Asbestos

Mesothelioma is the cancer that affects the mesothelial cells.  The mesothelial cells cover almost every organ inside your body.  These cells form a lubricating and protective coating over the organs called a mesothelium.  Mesothelioma is the cancer of the mesothelial cells.

Almost everyone who is diagnosed with mesothelioma was exposed to Asbestos, be it from the workplace, home or air-bone fibres.

James Hardie and Asbestos

James Hardie was one of the largest manufacturers and distributors of Asbestos in Australia.  While many companies over the last 50 years have been paying compensation to employees who were victim to Asbestos related diseases and cancers.  The history of Asbestos is closely linked to it’s victims however it is too enormous to cover in this article, read more on James Hardie Here and Here.

Asbestos Removal in Homes

The removal of Asbestos from building and homes will be a long and expensive process.  Asbestos can only be disposed of at a registered disposal facility.  These sites are registered with the Australian government and are the only people that can perform the disposal.  It is illegal to leave asbestos anywhere else in Australia.

While it is legal for you to remove Asbestos from your home yourself, it is advised that you do not undertake this process alone.  Safety equipment, breathing apparatus and the proper means to clean up afterwards should be factored into your asbestos removal.

While the toxic and carcinogenic qualities of asbestos are widely known, there are still a number of countries in the world that are mining huge amounts of asbestos for commercial use.  We can be sure that no more of it is used in Australia, but there is no such uniform ban on the substance throughout the world.

Written by History Cooperative
The History Cooperative is a collective of history buffs, interested authors, and dedicated technical staff who share a love for history. If you would love to help share this love, you can start by filling out a contribution form here.