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. 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 exposed surface deposits or in small mines. It was not until the Industrial Revolution that asbestos was mined commercially, as demand soared in the expanding textile and building industries.
The term ‘asbestos’
Asbestos was given its name by the ancient Greeks—the word ‘asbestos’, in Ancient Greek, means ‘unquenchable’. This name may refer to its non-flammable properties. In the ancient world, asbestos was often called by different names by different people. These names, too, typically relate to asbestos’ useful and rare properties. For instance, the Romans called asbestos ‘amiantus’, meaning ‘unpolluted’, referring to its ability to be cleaned by fire without being damaged. This term is reflected today in the French word for asbestos: amiante.
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 clay utensils.
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
It is sometimes said that Pliny the Elder (or possibly his nephew, Pliny the Younger) and the Greek geographer Strabo both noticed the negative health effects of asbestos; and that Romans would not purchase slaves who had worked with asbestos in the past because they seemed to die sooner than an unexposed slave. It hasn’t been verified that they actually said these things, though.
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 encountered asbestos in his travels; he was able to observe local methods of refining it and weaving it, and disdained claims that cloth made from it was the skin of salamanders that lived in fire. 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. 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.
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