The pre-industrial history of asbestos

Introduction

Asbestos is a group of naturally occurring minerals formed in the Earth’s crust over millions of years. The minerals form in veins, meaning they develop in the cracks of other rocks over time.1 Asbestos is a category of silicate rock comprising six common mineral fibres. The fibres are fireproof, flexible, and durable in the sun and rain. As a result, it has a wide range of industrial uses such as being woven into fabric, used as insulation, or mixed into cement.

Despite its industrial benefits, asbestos has severe health consequences; inhalation of asbestos fibres can lead to asbestosis, malignant lung cancer and mesothelioma, all of which have no curative treatment. Nonetheless, humans have used the material for millennia. Ancient societies acquired asbestos from surface exposure or in small mines. It was not until the Industrial Revolution that asbestos was mined commercially, as its insular properties became very valuable.2

The term ‘asbestos’

The ancient Greeks called the mineral group ‘asbestos’, a word that means ‘inextinguishable’. It was likely named as such due to its inflammable properties.3 Even then, asbestos was often called by different names by different people. These names related back to asbestos’ useful and rare properties. For instance, the Romans called asbestos ‘amiantus’, meaning ‘unpolluted’, referring to its ability to be easily cleaned. This term is reflected today in the French word for asbestos: amiante.

Ancient uses

The earliest known use of the asbestos mineral was more than 2 500 years ago in Finland, where people used asbestos to strengthen their pottery and insulate their homes.4

The Roman historian Pliny the Elder, who believed asbestos to be a plant linen, wrote that asbestos was rare. He described napkins woven from the material that would be thrown into a fire to be cleaned. From his work Natural History, we learned that asbestos cloth was used to wrap deceased royalty on funeral pyres to keep their ashes separate from those of the pyre.

Wrapping the dead in asbestos textiles was a practice also carried out by both the ancient Persians and Egyptians. Ancient Persians practiced the same method of using asbestos cloth to separate the ashes of the dead from that of the pyre. While ancient Egyptians did not burn their dead, between 3 000 and 2 000 BCE embalmed Egyptian pharaohs were wrapped in asbestos blankets to preserve their bodies.

Noticing the health hazards

Pliny the Elder and the Greek geographer Strobo both noticed the negative health effects of asbestos. They noticed that the slaves who wove asbestos into cloth often struggled with lung-related illnesses. Romans, too, took note of the health consequences of asbestos exposure as they would not purchase slaves who had worked with asbestos in the past because they seemed to die sooner than an unexposed slave.5

The middle ages and beyond

Other pre-industrial uses of asbestos included the production of wicks, mats, and house sealants. Charlemagne would entertain his dinner guests by throwing his asbestos tablecloth into the fire to clean it. Marco Polo, too, encountered asbestos when interacting with Persians who imported asbestos from India. He believed asbestos was the fur of an animal that lived in the fire.6 During medieval times, asbestos cloth was used to insulate knights’ suits of armour.

Asbestos was mined in Russia under Tsar Peter the Great in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. It was even used to make paper; by the 1800s, in Italy, it was used in banknotes to make them last longer.7 The 1850s saw Parisian firefighters wearing suits made of asbestos to protect themselves from flames.The popularity of asbestos declined until the Industrial Revolution when there was a new requirement for insulation.

By the early nineteenth century, Italy had begun mining asbestos for industrial purposes resulting from the development of textiles. Around the same time, deposits of asbestos had been found in Canada, Russia, and South Africa. The first commercial mine opened in Thetford, Quebec in 1879. As the Industrial Revolution charged ahead, demand for asbestos increased and a new million dollar industry was born.

 

Resources:

1. Powell, Wayne G. (1998). Where does chrysotile come from? Retrieved June 2013 from http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/geology/powell/core_asbestos/geology/form/how_asbestos_from.htm.

2. How Stuff Works. (2013). Asbestos. Retrieved June 2013 from http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/earth/geology/asbestos-info.htm.

3. Asbestos Resource Center. (2013). History of Asbestos. Retrieved June 2013 from http://www.asbestosresource.com/history/.

4. United States Department of the Interior. (ND). Asbestos: Geology, Mineralogy, Mining, and Uses. Retrieved June 2013 from http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2002/of02-149/of02-149.pdf.

5. Peterson, Krista. (2011). Playing with fire resistance: Asbestos use and abandonment. Retrieved June 2013 from http://www.environmentalgraffiti.com/health-and-body/news-playing-fire-resistance-history-asbestos-use-and-abandonment.

6. MBendi. (2013). Asbestos. Retrieved June 2013 from http://www.mbendi.com/indy/ming/asbs/p0005.htm.

7. The Mesothelioma Center. (2013). Mining & Manufacturing History. Retrieved June 2013 from http://www.asbestos.com/asbestos/history/.