Asbestos is a silent and deadly danger that has destroyed the lungs of many construction workers, demolition crews and other trades people. This material, although having beneficial properties such as being fireproof and sound absorbent, releases a hazardous dust. When the small fibres are inhaled they can cause serious illnesses such as mesothelioma, malignant lung cancer and much more.
Many people believe that asbestos is a material that originated in the modern era. It did indeed experience a surge in popularity during the late 19th century when it was used to build many of the buildings in the industrial revolution boom. It was used in everything from building insulation to hotplate wiring to electrical insulation to fabric. However, the origins of asbestos go back a lot further than this. Although large-scale asbestos mining did not really begin on a large scale until the end of the 19th century, asbestos has been used as a building material for much longer.
The Very First Asbestos Mines
The first Asbestos mining took place more than 4,000 years ago. Archaeological remains found in the Lake Juojarvi region of East Finland show that the inhabitants used the asbestos mineral anthophyllite to strengthen their cooking utensils and earthenware pots.
The word “asbestos” comes from an Ancient Greek word that means “inextinguishable”. The material was also described in the writings of Theophrastus from approximately 300 BC. The book On Stones is thought to contain a description, although this has been questioned by scholars as the naming of materials is not always accurate from ancient times.
Charlemagne and His Magic Tablecloth
Around the year 800 Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, is said to have had an asbestos table cloth that he used to impress his dinner guests. After the meal when the tablecloth was stained with food and wine, he would simply throw it in the fireplace. Everyone would gasp in awe as the food stains were burnt off and the tablecloth remained untouched.
The Shrouds of Dead Kings
There is a theory held by some archeologists that ancient societies would make burial shrouds for kings and important figures out of asbestos. The idea is that when the body was burned, the ashes would be contained within the shroud and would not mix with the wood and the other materials in the funeral pyre.
The amazing fireproof properties of asbestos were considered to be magical, which explains by so many ancient societies regarded it with awe.
Evidence of Health Issues
Even way back in Greek and Roman times, the negative health effects of working with asbestos were observed. There were many asbestos mines in ancient Greece and Rome and the workers who dug the material out of the stone quarries exhibited particular health problems. The Greek geographer Strabo wrote about a “sickness of the lungs” he observed in slaves who worked weaving asbestos into cloth. Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian, philosopher and naturalist, also wrote about the “disease of the slaves”, which was the lung cancer and mesothelioma caused by asbestos exposure.
Pliny the Elder also described how the slaves would use the membrane from the bladder of a goat over their mouth and nose to protect themselves from inhaling the fibres.
Hundreds of years later, when asbestos mining became industrialized, this material saw a resurgence. By the early 1900s, asbestos production boomed worldwide to more than 30,000 tons annually. However, despite the negative health effects being documented since ancient times, the large scale production of this material could not be stopped. Asbestos was used in many different products during this time, from fabrics to car brake pads to thermal insulation.
These days, even after asbestos has been banned, we are still seeing the effects of this in those exposed to the material as cases of latent mesothelioma due to exposure are diagnosed every day.