Asbestos has been mined throughout history, its use dating back to over 4,000 years ago. Ancient people believed this naturally occurring mineral was magical because it was virtually indestructible. It could withstand heat, fire, water, electricity, and chemical damage. Asbestos in ancient Greek means indistinguishable.
In the Stone Age, asbestos was used to strengthen ceramics, like pots and cooking utensils. Ancient people used it to make tablecloths, linens, wicks for candles that would never burn down, shoes, hats, it was woven into soldiers clothing to insulate their armor. The Egyptians used it in the cremation cloths for mummification, the body would burn but the cloths wouldn’t so they could preserve the ashes. The Romans would clean their asbestos napkins by throwing it into a fire and the napkins would remain unharmed and come out white and clean. In the earliest written records about asbestos, it was observed that it caused health problems in the lungs, but because it was so amazing, people continued to use it regardless.
The use of asbestos increased significantly during the industrial revolution in the late 19th century, with its strength and resistance to heat, among other things, it became ideal for use in machines such as trains and ships to insulate equipment which was susceptible to catching fire like steam pipes, turbines and engines. In construction, asbestos was used in building materials, as it made the products stronger, fire-resistant, and/or soundproof. As technology advanced, so did asbestos use. The growing demand for asbestos led to an increase in asbestos mining.
It wasn’t until the early 1900s, that doctors started noticing that those who worked in asbestos factories, asbestos mines, or lived in asbestos mining towns were suffering from lung problems and dying at a young age. Despite the health warnings, asbestos companies continued to use asbestos because it was such an invaluable resource and they hid the health risks associated with it.
Slowly the lung diseases related to asbestos became more evident and by the early 1970's regulations were put in place to stop the use of asbestos. Companies started to find alternatives for asbestos-containing materials. Asbestos mines were abandoned. Asbestos is still around today, it is still on navy ships, houses, buildings that were built before the mid 1970s.
And although asbestos appears like it was mainly a problem of the past, it is still continues to be of concern. People who were exposed to asbestos decades ago are still at risk for developing mesothelioma, asbestos-related lung cancer or asbestosis since it takes 20-50 years for asbestos cancers to develop.