Discovery to Today: The Use of Asbestos

ancient pottery in piles

Asbestos today is largely associated with mesothelioma, but it has been a long road to understanding the hazards of the material. From its discovery to remaining use today, we have been seeking to grasp the possible use and potential dangers.

The discovery of asbestos

The first known instance of asbestos discovery dates back to 2400 BC. Around 300 BC, there was a reference to a cloth material that historians believe to be asbestos found in ancient philosopher Theophrastus’ writings.

Early use

After the discovery of asbestos, its use spread all over the ancient world. Without an understanding of its health ramifications, it quickly became a material commonly featured in many household products, including:

  • Pots and cooking utensils in Finland
  • Wicks in candles
  • Egyptian embalming
  • Greek and Roman cloth for the dead
  • Tablecloths, cremation cloths, mats and temple lamps by the Franks
  • Fireproof paper and banknotes
  • Jackets and helmets of Paris fire responders

Modern use

Asbestos quickly made its way into modern commercialization. Mechanized mining began in the late 1800s and more than 30,000 tons of the material was produced by the early 1900s. Though there quickly were reports of the health risks of asbestos starting in 1898, it’s uses persisted. By the 1920s, the asbestos mines and manufacturers were well aware that asbestos dust released from asbestos products is deadly.  By the 1940s, they were well aware that it caused cancer.  While asbestos use in the U.S. peaked in 1980, asbestos is still in many new materials today, including:

  • Plastics
  • Electrical components
  • HVAC system parts
  • Adhesives
  • Felt
  • Fireproofing
  • Gaskets
  • Vinyl
  • Makeup
  • Talcum powder

Asbestos today

Since the 1960s, we know that asbestos leads to asbestosis and various cancers such as  mesothelioma, lung cancer, colon cancer, gastric cancer, kidney cancer, and lymphoma. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are up to 2,800 new cases of mesothelioma every year in the U.S. alone. While there has been some regulation on the toxic material it is not banned, and we are still dealing with the severe ramifications of its use. There are still U.S. industries using the material and many Americans find that their homes, businesses and vehicles still contain asbestos.