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The Ancient World: Asbestos In History

Date Added: December 10, 2011 06:48:05 AM
Author: jack_russell
Category: Asbestos Industry

Despite it's image as a modern material, human civilisations association with asbestos goes back over 4000 years, when evidence shows that it was being used by Baltic culture's who used anthophylite to strengthen earthen ware cooking pots and other utensils. The word asbestos is derived from the ancient Greek term to mean “unquenchable” or “inextinguishable” and the name asbestos was first coined by the Roman scholar Pliny The Elder (23 AD – August 25, 79 AD) in his manuscript “Natural History”.

Asbestos usage throughout ancient history was widespread, its properties of fire resistance and high tensile strength were well known, being used by the Romans amongst other things as tablecloths in restaurants that could just be thrown onto the fire in order to clean them ready for instant reuse and as an additive to roads in order to add strength.

The Ancient Persians in particular seem to be associated with asbestos, where it was imported from the Hindu Kush by wealthy merchants to use in many forms of cloth, guests would be amazed at how this miraculous cloth could be cleaned simply by exposing it to fire. History also tells us how asbestos fibres were used in everything from lamp wicks to cremation shrouds, even the famed vestal virgins were said to be robed in fire proof clothes.

During the Dark Ages, recorded usage of asbestos seems to disappear, either due to the loss of ancient knowledge, a paucity of scribes to record its usage or a combination of the two, whilst asbestos was known to have been used to line armour during the middle ages, it was not until the nineteenth century that asbestos comes into its own and is used on an industrial scale.


Asbestos, A History Of The Industrial Revolution

During the industrial revolutions of the nineteenth century, asbestos usage really took off, the new industrial processes of iron smelting, steel production, the rise of the railways and the introduction of electricity meant that asbestos was widely used, its well known properties coupled with its fibrous nature made it flexible and easy to mould or shape into endless products.

Fire curtains in theatres for example or electrical wiring and insulation, in fact by the middle of the century there was hardly a building or factory that did not contain asbestos where it routinely insulated pipes, ducts, kilns, boilers and the like.

Asbestos usage increased as the twentieth century wore on, with asbestos seemingly a miracle substance wherever there was heat, friction or weathering; the emergent auto mobile industry used asbestos in brake pads and clutch disks, even garden furniture could be protected from the elements using this material.


Asbestos A History Of Problems

It is noteworthy to realise that the ancients were well aware of health problems associated with asbestos use, slaves quarrying in the mines of ancient Rome were known to die young from terrible lung diseases, ex-quarry slaves were not considered a good buy in the slave markets for this reason.


The first documented modern case of asbestos related death was in 1906, and by the mid 1930's suspicions began to grow when researchers noticed the very high numbers of early deaths and lung problems in asbestos mining towns.


The UK was the first country to diagnose asbestosis in 1924, followed up by regulation in the 1930's that work places were adequately ventilated. By the mid 1940's the dangers of asbestos were well known, however vested interests amongst the asbestos industry and government inertia especially in the United States, where officials knew of the dangers yet concealed it from the public meant that legislation took longer to enact than was necessary


In Australia asbestos had been widely used throughout the construction industry between 1945- 80, but by the 1970s with increasing concern over the dangers it posed was gradually phased out. Mining asbestos in Australia was ended in 1983, with asbestos used being phased out in 1989 before being entirely banned in 2003.