Posted on January 24th, 2017
In recent human history asbestos was revered as a magic mineral, used in the construction industry more than any other industry, by making thousands of products with asbestos. Besides having been deemed an ideal building material, asbestos has also been employed for a wide variety of other applications, some of which quite surprising.
The dangers of asbestos exposure were formally recognized in the 1980s when an increasing number of people who had been in prolonged contact with these carcinogenic minerals in the workplace began suffering from serious respiratory conditions such as asbestosis, pleural mesothelioma or lung cancer. It was also during that decade that multiple government agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, started raising awareness about the life-threatening health effects exposure to asbestos can cause over time. However, asbestos has a vast history which goes far beyond the 20th century. Although you might know some of the following fascinating asbestos-related facts, it is always worth remembering the astounding extent asbestos use, mining and exposure have had over the course of history, as well as nowadays, unfortunately.
Even though asbestos use has dramatically peaked after the Industrial Revolution, the employment of these toxic minerals is by no means a novelty. The Egyptians would wrap the bodies of Pharos in a cloth made of asbestos fibers as a part of the embalming process. This would slow down the decomposition process and keep the body almost intact for a very long period of time.
Pottery containing asbestos fibers, which would increase its resistance to fire, dating back to 2500 BC has also been discovered in Finland, while mineral fibers would be embedded in the Romans' napkins and table cloths for practical purposes. They would throw the cloths into the fire to allegedly clean the fabric, a process which would also visibly whiten them. Moreover, the Greeks and the Persians attributed magical properties to asbestos due to the multiple convenient advantages it offered (durability, resistance to fire, flexibility etc.).
Besides having been deemed an ideal building material, asbestos has also been employed for a wide variety of other applications, some of which quite surprising. Fibers of white asbestos served as artificial snow between the 1930s and the 1950s in the U.S. due to their great resemblance with real snow. The product was sold under various trade names such as White Magic Snow and Snow Drift. Nowadays, when the hazardous effects of exposure are well-known and undeniable, it is frightening to think that people would carelessly decorate their Christmas trees with these carcinogenic fibers.
Perhaps the most shocking product in which asbestos has been added is toothpaste. During the 1950s, Ipana, a brand of toothpaste manufactured by Bristol-Myers Company, became widely popular in the U.S. due to its alleged whitening properties. One of its ingredients was asbestos fibers, which were supposed to help teeth abrasion.
Another unsettling application of asbestos refers "ironically" to the medical field. After World War II, cardiothoracic surgeons would close patients' incisions with asbestos thread, as it had remarkable resistance and flexibility. Some other common asbestos-containing products were cigarette filters, hair dryers, talcum powder and makeup.
Dr. Hubert Montague Murray, a Senior Physician, and lecturer in pathology at the Charing Cross Hospital in London reported lung disease caused by long-term asbestos exposure in a textile worker in 1907. Although this was definitely not the first asbestosis case to ever occur, as these toxic minerals have been employed for various purposes since ancient times, Dr. Murray provided a detailed description of the pulmonary fibrosis he discovered during the autopsy. "Spicules of asbestos" have been found in the worker's lungs, as well as in their sputum while they were alive. The physician attributed the worker's respiratory condition to asbestos exposure, which eventually led to their death.
Despite the fact that 55 countries have banned the asbestos use, mining and import entirely within the last four decades, the carcinogen is still widely mined in multiple places around the world, regardless of the tremendous health risks exposure entails. Russia is the leading producer of asbestos at the moment, with over half a million tons of asbestos being annually exported to countries such as Thailand, China, and India, where regulations regarding asbestos are practically non-existent. Canada, Brazil, China, and Kazakhstan are also in the top 5 producers of asbestos worldwide.
Surprisingly, asbestos is not completely banned in the U.S. Even though the Environmental Protection Agency attempted to outlaw asbestos in 1989, the regulation was regrettably overturned and thus, the use of asbestos in products which have historically contained it is still allowed, as well as import. Over 8 million pounds of asbestos entered the country between 2006 and 2014. However, asbestos mining and new employments are strictly forbidden.
The devastating health effects of asbestos exposure are often thought of as a modern medical discovery. Although it is true that asbestos was formally recognized as a human carcinogen by several reputable U.S. government agencies only in the 1980s, its toxicity has apparently been observed long before. Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian, wrote about the disease of slaves he noticed in miners working with asbestos, which was most likely asbestosis or a form of cancer affecting the lungs. In his writings, the historian also describes the protective measures employed to limit exposure: slave workers would cover their mouths and noses with a thin membrane made from the bladder of a lamb or goat to prevent the inhaling and ingestion of fibers.
Additionally, the Greek geographer and historian Strabo documented a sickness of the lungs as well. He noticed the affection, which occurred in slaves who wove fibers of asbestos into textiles, during his numerous travels and subsequently included the observation in one of his writings.