The History of Asbestos Use

Asbestos has been used for centuries, all over the world. Some of its first uses can be traced back thousands of years when it was worked into ancient pottery and cooking utensils. The word “asbestos” derives from the Greek, and means ‘inextinguishable’ or ‘indestructible.’ Early on, people could see the benefits of asbestos being that is strong, flexible, and resistant to heat.

Asbestos was used in Ancient Rome and the Middle Ages. The 1800’s saw the commercial mining and use of asbestos in North America. In 1879, the first asbestos mine was open at Thetford, within the Quebec province. After 300 tons of asbestos had been produced in Canada, Russia quickly began mining the substance as well.

Anthophyllite asbestos close up

In America, asbestos was used extensively as the country embraced new industries of all kinds. With the arrival of the steam locomotive, there arose the need to control the heat produced by the trains. Certain automobile parts would need insulation as well, so asbestos was installed into brake pads and linings, clutch facings, and various gaskets. Eventually asbestos was worked into construction materials as commercial and residential homes were built.

Asbestos was eventually worked into over 3,000 products around the world. As the twentieth century approached, researchers began noticing illness and death of those living in asbestos mining towns. Those who worked around the substance were reported to die unnaturally early, compared to the rest of the population.

Asbestosis was first diagnosed in a worker in 1924, when Nellie Kershaw died at thirty-three years old after handling the substance for twenty years. Her death would lead to the publication of the first Asbestos Industry Regulations in 1931. While many employers and asbestos manufacturers claimed that asbestos was not a dangerous substance, more workers fell ill to fatal asbestos-related diseases.

Today, asbestos is still not banned in America, and many countries continue to mine, import, and export it for commercial use. The World Health Organization estimates that 125,000,000 people are exposed to asbestos in the workplace today, meaning the devastating diseases that come with exposure will continue to affect the world for some time to come.

Sources: 1, 2, 3

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