The history of asbestos dates to the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean – and perhaps even earlier. Among the earliest records documenting the history of asbestos use are those from ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. These records show that it was considered a miraculous material and used in everything from tablecloths to candlewicks.
In ancient civilizations, the fire-resistant properties of asbestos proved very useful for many common products, yet its dangers were recognized even then. Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote in the 1st Century A.D. about slaves who fell mysteriously ill and died after working in asbestos mines. The disease known today as asbestosis was then called “the disease of slaves.”
The history of asbestos shows its use faded over time, likely due to its reputation for sickening and killing asbestos miners.
The Industrial Age
Asbestos re-emerged in the 19th century with the Industrial Revolution. The early industrialists found many uses for the mineral and its popularity in manufacturing rose, along with occupational exposure to asbestos. Although reports of lung diseases among asbestos workers and their families emerged as early as 1897, asbestos use by industry grew unabated.
Throughout the 20th century, the history of asbestos includes documented use in more than 3,000 construction materials and household products, exposing thousands to its potential dangers. It was also used in hundreds of Navy ships leading to occupational exposure to asbestos for many military personnel.
The History of Asbestos: Laws
The history of asbestos continues in the early 1960s, when medical researcher Dr. Irving Selikoff became the first public figure to connect asbestos exposure with serious illness. In the following two decades, this documented link showing how asbestos causes mesothelioma and other diseases led to lawsuits against negligent corporations that exposed their workers to the deadly material without protection. Asbestos litigation peaked in 1999.
Asbestos is now banned in over 60 countries. Most Americans mistakenly think that asbestos was banned in the U.S. decades ago when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initially banned it in 1989. That ban was overturned on a technicality in 1992. Asbestos, while heavily regulated, remains legal in the U.S.
The History of Asbestos Continues
Asbestos exposure is a growing problem worldwide. In the latest chapter in the history of asbestos, key producing nations such as Canada and Russia export large amounts of it to India, China and other countries with poor safety standards. Asbestos experts fear these nations are on the brink of the same health catastrophe that the U.S. has experienced.